Researchers facing ‘shocking’ levels of stress, survey reveals

Ian Sample Science editor
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Overwhelming work pressure, discrimination, and widespread bullying and harassment are contributing to “shocking” levels of stress and mental health problems among scientists, according to a major survey into research culture.

Nearly two thirds of scientists who took part had witnessed bullying or harassment, with many believing it had become “culturally systemic” in science. Among those who identified as disabled, the problem was even worse, with nearly three quarters having witnessed such behaviour.

Combinations of toxic behaviour, including discrimination and exploitation, mixed with routine pressures of working life led more than a third to seek professional help for depression or anxiety, with nearly another fifth saying they wanted help. Overall, 70% of the scientists surveyed said they felt stressed on the average work day.

The survey, commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, the biomedical research funder, shines a spotlight on a research environment that has been in trouble for some time. The system imposes a hierarchy in which superiors can seem to do no wrong, and subordinates can feel powerless to complain. It is a problem the Wellcome Trust faced itself in 2018, when it investigated leaders of its Sanger Institute in Cambridge after staff alleged bullying, mistreatment and discrimination.

Related: In the science lab, some bullies can thrive unchecked for decades

Beyond bad behaviour and poor management, the pressure to secure grants and churn out publications has intensified for scientists, and with it, the temptation to cut corners. The result can be wasted research funds as faulty experiments lead to retracted papers and, at worst, outright fraud and fabrication.

“Some of these results are frankly shocking,” said Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust. “There have been enormous scientific advances in the past 40 years and I think we’ve been seduced by that. We’ve been willing to sacrifice everything to achieve them, without asking at what cost.”

Beth Thompson, research culture lead at Wellcome, said: “No one set out to create a bad system that damages people’s mental health, but we have unintentionally created a system that values the excellence of research outputs without paying enough attention to how that research is done.”

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said “some of the results [of the survey] are frankly shocking.” Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

The research, a collaboration with Shift Learning, involved in-depth interviews with 94 UK-based researchers and an online survey that was completed by 4,267 scientists. Three quarters worked in Britain, 84% were white, and 60% were male. Only 6% of the respondents reported a disability.

The survey, whose respondents were self-selecting, may paint an unduly negative portrait of working life in the sciences, but Farrar believes the overall picture is consistent with the experiences shared by scientists in the interviews. While 84% of scientists felt proud to work in research, only 29% felt secure in their jobs. Nearly a third worked more than 50 hours per week, and many felt that intense competition was “creating conditions ripe for aggressive, unkind behaviour”.

Scientists who spoke to the Guardian echoed the survey’s findings. Katerina Kademoglou, who left Britain because of Brexit and is now a postdoc at Masaryk University in the Czech Republic, said that being a scientist had taken a toll on her mental and physical health, her personal life, and her social skills. “In order to thrive, we need inclusiveness, the feeling of belonging, an engaging working environment and support,” she said.

Based on her experience at previous institutions, Dr Deepti Gurdasani, now a researcher at Queen Mary, University of London, said: “A change in culture needs to occur at multiple levels. Some funders have perpetuated this culture by funding and supporting known bullies. Good management and mentoring are not valued and contribute little to career progression but stepping on others to move ahead ends up being rewarded.”

Dr Tom Swift, a polymer chemist at the University of Bradford, considers himself lucky, but said the sector needs to look at workloads. Sessions on “health culture” had a tendency to descend into group counselling, with the message being that “we are all in this together”, he said.

“Many colleagues feel that without the drive or ability to force institutional change, they have no option but to wait for an inevitable collapse of the system and try to pick up the pieces afterwards,” he added.

Dr Sophie Acton, a researcher at UCL and co-author of a 2019 report on research culture, said PhD students and new investigators were expected to perform on ever-shorter timescales, driving up pressure and impacting the science that could be done. “More flexible funding for longer time periods or renewable time periods would help,” she said, as would more communication between funders and more junior scientists.

Dr Karen Stroobants, co-founder of MetisTalk, an organisation that seeks to improve research culture, said: “To achieve the full potential of research, we will need well-rested researchers from diverse backgrounds, a focus on collaboration over competition, and incentive structures that promote integrity and open research practices.”

The Wellcome Trust now plans to hold a series of “town hall” meetings at UK universities to discuss the problems with scientists and explore solutions to raise in March at the Reimagine Research Summit. The Trust recently announced funding for a series of PhDs that were awarded on the strength of the recipient institution’s work culture as well as the intended research.

“There’s no magic bullet that will solve all of these problems,” Farrar said. “But that’s not the same as saying there aren’t a small number of things which would make a dramatic difference to people’s lives.”