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Mental and Occupational Health Crisis in Science: The Solutions

Stress, insecurity and lack of alternatives are serious psychosocial risks for the research community. What ideas for improvement are proposed? Many are calling for an end to the endless days, missing leadership training and questioning the scientific quality assessment system.

Asumiendo que no existe una solución única ni fácil, recogemos propuestas para aliviar la presión de los investigadores quemados por las condiciones de trabajo en la carrera académica. / Wearbeard

This report is the third in a series that analyses occupational health risks in the research career, points out their causes and proposes alternatives.

At least one in three doctoral students report significant mental health problems, according to some studies. The first article in this series quoted the causes that seem to be leading to this situation. Assuming that there is no single or easy solution, this third article collects data and proposals to alleviate the current reality.

On alternatives to research

One of the causes of the discomfort has to do with the scarcity of positions once one advances in the research world, a very broad-based pyramid in which temporary contracts follow one another, until the majority is expelled due to the extreme difficulty of accessing the higher echelons. It is a problem that is difficult to solve, accentuated by the current narrow view of what a doctorate is.

Fernando Maestre, director of the Laboratory of Ecology of Arid Zones and Global Change at the University of Alicante, claims: “We bosses should be aware that there is life beyond the academy, that whoever does not survive this environment is far from being a failure.”

As Matthew Lane, a researcher in materials engineering, said, “part of your job is publishing and doing research. But part of your job is getting another job.”

Some research centres are already starting to incorporate information sessions on alternative paths, such as industry, sales and marketing, science policy, intellectual property or science communication. But they are still few and far between and students face reticence. As Justin Chen has said: "We attended, but we kept our plans secret from our advisors out of fear that they would take us less seriously. Better to make it seem like we weren’t interested in networking or volunteering on the side.”

Trayectorias doctorandos

Gráfico elaborado a partir del informe 'The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity' de The Royal Society, 2010. / José Antonio Peñas, SINC

Gregory Petsko, chairman of the commission that the National Academies of the United States created to analyse the experience of post-doctoral researchers, once said: “Grad school training is excellent and we should encourage as many people as possible to do so (...)but the problem lies in the beliefs that PhD students (and postdocs) hold of themselves: they don’t think they’re capable or skilled enough to take on anything else.”

In general, what they lack are the tools to know where they want to go.

For Maestre, a doctorate develops a large number of skills, such as “critical capacity, data analysis or decision making, which are highly valued by private companies. If we start to consider a scientific career only as an option, then the pressure decreases.”

On excess hours

An informal guide published in Australia stated that a doctoral student should work 50-60 hours per week. A Caltech professor sent a personal letter to a student to reprimand him for missing a weekend of work.

These schedules are not exceptional. A survey in Nature  revealed that 38% of the 13,000 young researchers worldwide who responded to the survey worked more than 60 hours, and 9% worked more than 80 hours.

The number of hours dedicated is not directly proportional to the number of publications and their relevance

Now, is this huge number of hours linked to increased productivity?

There are few objective data, but it is possible to make an assessment. An article published in Nature provides an estimate of the working hours of senior researchers in twelve European countries. At the extremes are Germany, with the highest number of hours reported (50 per week), and the Netherlands, with the most limited hours (up to twelve hours less per week).

We can also think of the United States as another example of a culture with a large number of hours dedicated to work, and of the Nordic countries as icons of fixed time, with times of departure around 5 p.m. (In the second installment of this series we interviewed the representatives of Spanish researchers in four of these countries). ) Data from a recent survey, also in Nature, conducted among PhD students around the world, point in this direction.

On the other hand, the hours of dedication can be compared with the results of a 2014 study that analysed the scientific productivity of 18 countries, both in number of publications -corrected by the funding dedicated to R&D- and in their quality, measured by the average impact factor in natural, medical and life sciences.

Even assuming the limitations of this comparison, the data indicate that, in number of publications, both the US and Germany are clearly behind the Netherlands and Denmark. Regarding impact, the US lies between these two countries, with Germany some way behind. Finland, Norway and Sweden are ahead of the countries with more working hours, with a quality comparable to that of Germany.

In other words, the number of hours spent is not directly proportional to the number of publications and their relevance.


A la izquierda, número de publicaciones relativas al gasto en I+D en 2012 (en unidades estandarizadas) e impacto medio normalizado de las publicaciones en el periodo 2009-2011, según un estudio publicado en 2016. A la derecha, horas semanales de dedicación al trabajo de los investigadores sénior en diferentes países de Europa, de acuerdo con otro estudio de 2013. A pesar de las limitaciones de esta comparación, no parece existir una relación directa entre las horas de dedicación y la productividad o la calidad. / J. A. Peñas, SINC

“We must banish the myth of the researcher who is obsessed day and night with his work, who continually sacrifices time with his family, friends and hobbies,” Maestre says.

“Working 50-60 hours a week is a mistake that weighs down originality and creativity. In our group we don’t do that, we work our 40 hours a week with weekends and vacations. It’s true that there are peaks of occasional work but it’s false that they should be sustained over time. And we're doing very well, both in terms of funding and publications. His group has, for example, a Consolidator Grant, one of the most prestigious grants awarded by the European Research Council.

“We must banish the myth of the researcher obsessed with his work, who sacrifices time with his family, friends and hobbies,” declares Maestre

Maria Blasco, director of the CNIO, acknowledges that “in laboratory work, especially at training levels, sometimes the project may require flexible schedules. In the end, however, the working day should be respected.”

Economic studies point to a two-way relationship between work happiness and productivity. Although a small survey among postdocs did not find a clear association between the two, it also did not find it to be negative.

Mental health studies agree in pointing out the difficulty of reconciling work and personal life as the main cause of discomfort in the researchers; and improving this situation does not seem to decrease productivity, but quite possibly the opposite.

On personal life and creativity

The balance between personal and professional life includes family time, but also other aspects, such as private time, for friends or hobbies. The latter have been viewed lately as a measure, not only of well-being, but also to encourage problem-solving and creativity.

“We need to stop seeing hobbies and work as zero-sum games,” says Alex Clark, vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-author of How to be a Happy Academic. As Bailey Sousa, director of the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology at the same university and co-author of the book, has said, “people actually hide their hobbies, or pretend they don’t do anything outside of work, because they are worried about what people will think,”  As was the case with Justin Chen and alternative career training.

You can't stop someone from wanting to devote many more hours than stipulated, resulting in a competitive advantage and an unequal struggle

However, “we cannot prevent someone from wanting to devote many more hours than those stipulated,” says Maestre. That can lead to an unequal struggle between those who choose to live or sacrifice themselves like this, those who cannot live like this, or those who do not feel that a job should be like this.

“It's true that this can give a competitive advantage in the short term, but we bosses have to be aware that it’s not sustainable over time and that in the long run it can affect originality and quality, even the atmosphere of the group,” Maestre insists.

In any case, many contracts do not depend on the decision of the bosses, but on a curriculum that is valued by external institutions. “That's true in Spain, but not so much in other countries. At least, where we can, we should value more things,” says Maestre

On the glass ceiling

The culture of workaholism can particularly affect women. As Bryan Gaensler, an astronomer at the University of Toronto, explains, their “numbers drop off sharply at each higher rung of the career ladder.”

The culture of workaholism affects women's careers more, as caregiving roles are not evenly split

Numerous studies corroborate this statement, such as the European Commission’s periodic reports, which include the so-called scissors graph: women are in the majority at the start of a scientific career (55%), but their representation drops to less than 25% in the highest positions.

“This leaky pipeline already has many causes, without easy solutions. The reality is that parenting and caregiving roles are not evenly split by gender, even more so for scientists. Thus, if the scientific community follows the advice [on excessive hours], we are then even further fostering a culture that directly holds back talented women from successful scientific careers. And that limits the quality and breadth of ideas and discoveries,” Gaensler explains.

At the CNIO, directed by Maria Blasco, “not only do we have flexible schedules, but we don't put in essential meetings after 4 p.m. and we give an extra year for each child before the evaluation of the group leaders. We have a women and science office that monitors gender and work-life balance issues.”

On excellence

In the first part of the report, excellence was mentioned as an increasingly criticized concept, even by the European Commission. The hyper-competitiveness generated not only harms the environment in laboratories, but also the quality of science itself, which is increasingly lacking in reproducibility. Its most obvious consequence can be summed up in the slogan “publish or perish”.

For Fernando Maestre, “although it has been said many times, it is worth remembering that the impact factor of journals was not designed to evaluate individual results, and that it is a poor indicator of the quality of research.” However, many experts are unable to point to an alternative model.

The European Commission wonders whether “excellence could be a misnomer to assess the quality of scientific research in a world where processes, and not only outcomes, are increasingly subject of ethical and societal scrutiny.”

Changes for a new evaluation assessment system of science

This is the proposal of researchers from several institutions, including King's College London::

  • To change the narrative based on excellence to one focused on the terms soundness and capacity.

  • To recover and enhance the concept of normal science proposed by Thomas Kuhn, where quality is based on procedures and not on results. This not only gives control and reduces pressure, but also highlights the importance of negative results (which discard hypotheses) and the verification and examination of previous results (which avoid incorrect snowball effects).

  • To create a funding system in which almost all groups receive a base money, which could be increased by incentives. This would decrease the overwhelming pressure to publish and increase diversity in research.

In addition, Nature points out there are other ways of sharing data that should be valued, in addition to the traditional article. Can a university that is not offering the right training be considered truly excellent?

On groups, bosses and the institutions

Two thirds of the group leaders admit that they have not received any kind of training and leadership course, and most of them are demanding this.

“Leadership courses should be offered to avoid discrimination,” says Maestre

I have learned by trial and error," acknowledges Maestre, “and I will continue making mistakes, but just as there are courses to improve teaching, leadership courses should be offered on how to deal with personal day-to-day problems in the laboratories, to avoid discrimination, to alert to cases of bullying or dishonest practices. Institutions should teach us how to have healthier working environments, because we must also take into account that the skills that students want to develop do not have to be the ones that I, as a boss, want them to have.”

Some institutions are creating new jobs: they are responsible for sustainable science. They are responsible for improving the working environment in the centre, addressing problems that have arisen and aspects that need to be improved, apparently with good results.



En este gráfico sintetizamos sugerencias para jefes extraídas de los artículos de Fernando Maestre: Seven steps towards health and happiness in the lab y Ten simple rules towards healthier research labs.

Whether in that or other ways, “institutions should do a surveillance job on their own groups,” Maestre maintains, because “working conditions and welfare remain a taboo subject, as shown by the number of researchers working without a contract or the fear of reporting possible reprisals. In reality, it would almost be enough to enforce the law.”

Maestre likes to say that “labs should be places where researchers are trained, not where people are destroyed.” Because “this is a real, widespread, global problem. It's not new, but it's new to talk about it.”

Let the conversation continue.

Source: SINC
Copyright: Creative Commons
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