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Mental and occupational health crisis in science: the causes

The subject is not new, but its visibility is. Recent studies have uncovered high risks of depression and anxiety for researchers, especially doctoral students. Long days, scarcity of places, a hyper-competitive environment and the sacralisation of vocation lie behind the toxicity of the system.

The way of life in research laboratories burns out scientists, especially pre-doctoral scientists. / Wearbeard

This report is the first in a three-part series. Our aim here is to analyse the occupational health risks in the research career, point out their causes and propose solutions.

“The night after my thesis defense, falling asleep in bed, I reviewed the past six years of my life. I thought of the first time that I saw fish and frog embryos, and the gleaming, wooden table where my adviser and I had hours-long conversations about biology. I thought about the experiments and obsession and isolation. I saw my 20s passing by in a flash and wondered: Was it worth it?”

These lines were written by former American researcher Justin Chen in the STAT Scientific journal. His article, which is very critical of the way of life in research laboratories, generated a flood of responses in line with his vision. For example:

I started grad school with enthusiasm and ended, like most people I know, slightly bitter and just wanting the pain to end.

I envied those who weren’t bound by the confines of the lab, who didn’t have to cut social activities short to “run to lab to check on cells” every weekend, if only for an hour.  (...). I spent so much time in the lab that my kitchen at home was empty — I kept all my food in the bottom right drawer of the communal fridge.

“I feel that I exist in a bubble that I struggled terribly to get inside and cannot, now, get myself out of,” lamented one researcher

Other voices offered an alternative vision:

I would play devil’s advocate and say that for some people, perhaps those that are more inclined to be different or reclusive, graduate school is a breath of fresh air  (...) I loved graduate school. It allowed me to be absorbed in things that I love and to create my own routine. I worked too much by anyone else’s standard and would do it again in a heartbeat.

But perhaps the best summary of the answers is the following:

The work is rewarding but to this day I feel that I exist in a bubble that I struggled terribly to get inside and cannot, now, get myself out of. I applaud J. Chen’s honesty. It is the beginning of what I hope will be an important conversation.

The elephant in the room

The quality of life and working conditions in the laboratories have been the elephant in the room that for years almost everyone saw and hardly anyone dared to talk about. And the conversation seems to have begun.

Recent work has shown the mental health problems affecting researchers, especially the youngest ones. Nature magazine has begun publishing surveys and conducting monographs on the subject. The model by which science is measured, based on a supposed excellence that promotes hyper-competitiveness, is beginning to be questioned.

40% of doctoral students present symptoms of anxiety or depression, a probability six times higher than the general population

In 2018, a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology showed alarming results. After surveying more than 2,000 PhD students in 26 countries, they found that 40% of them had moderate or severe symptoms of anxiety or depression, “more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the authors claimed. The risk was even higher for women and transgender or gender non-conforming people. Two related factors were the difficulty of reconciling work and personal life and a sense of lack of support from their mentors.

The data was alarming, but not new. A year earlier, a study made among more than 3,000 students in Belgium found that up to half of them had at least two symptoms of poor mental health and a third had four or more, implying a high risk of depression. Comparatively, this is between twice and three times more likely than with other people with higher education who have not chosen a research career. Of the reasons, the most important was conflict between family and work. Among the protective factors, curiously, was the feeling that a career away from research would follow.

Sunsets in the Lab

A review of studies published by the Royal Society of England came to very similar conclusions, noting that only 6.2% of workers reported it to their institutions (out of an estimated 37% who might have a mental health problem).

A recent survey of more than 6,000 PhD students worldwide yielded slightly conflicting data: 38% were very satisfied with having chosen that path and 75% said they were satisfied to some extent. However, up to 36% admitted to having had to ask for help because of anxiety or depression.

“Work-life balance is hard to attain in a culture where it is frowned upon to leave the laboratory before the sun goes down,” authors say

Although most of this work has focused on the youngest students, several of these problems also seem to extend to post-doctoral researchers, who are in an intermediate position. And, to a much lesser but still considerable extent, to the seniors, who lead the research groups.

The authors of the first article concluded: “Faculty and administrators must set a tone of self-care as well as an efficient and mindful work ethic in order to move to a healthier work and education environment.” Because “work-life balance is hard to attain in a culture where it is frowned upon to leave the laboratory before the sun goes down. The stress of increased pressure to produce data in order to compete for funding has increased exponentially, and science fields are feeling immense pressure.”

In search of the causes

“This is a global problem, but one of the main causes is that there are very few positions in the research career compared to the number of people who apply for them. That leads to fierce competition," says Fernando Maestre, director of the Laboratory of Arid Zone Ecology and Global Change at King Juan Carlos University, who has published several articles and opinion columns in Nature magazine on how to improve the quality of life in laboratories.


José Antonio Peñas, SINC

There are hardly any national statistics on the life cycle of researchers. The best-known study is that conducted by the Royal Society in 2010, and the data it presented is alarming. When it comes to defending the thesis, more than half are leaving or have already left science, and only 3.5% will ever have a stable position in academia. A large number of those who continue will be on a succession of temporary contracts and will also end up leaving or, to a lesser extent, redirecting their careers towards industry.

An informal guide points out that 60 hours a week is the working day of a successful career. “If research is your passion, this is actually easy to do, and if it isn’t your passion, then you are probably in the wrong field.”

Added to this is the pressure to publish as many articles as possible and in the most important journals, as publications are the main requirement for obtaining the necessary funding. “That leads to hyper-competitive environments, even within the same group,” Maestre says.

“I see bosses who think of doctoral students more as a workforce than as trainees. It's a conflict of interests crossed with a lot of outward-looking hypocrisy, even if one admits that the system tends to enforce that situation,” he continues.

This means that, in the words of Gareth Hughes, a researcher on student welfare at University of Derby, we have "lost a lot of researchers who were very good academically because they couldn't survive the toxicity.”

An informal guide published by several members of the Queensland Institute for Biomedical Research in Australia states: “Work hard. Don't think you can get away with a 38-hour week. You will need to work long hours throughout the week, and for part of most weekends. That gets you closer to a 50-60 hour week, which is what you need if you want to have a successful career in academia (or indeed in any professional career). If research is your passion, this is actually easy to do, and if it isn’t, then you are probably in the wrong field.” This sacralisation of the scientific vocation is, for Maestre, “a source of exploitation.”

New models of good science

In 2015, Science published an article by University of Toronto researcher Eleftherios P. Diamandis under the title Getting noticed is half the battle. This said about his early days in research: “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.”

Against possible criticism, he ended his article as follows: “Our daughter, by the way, is now a Ph.D. scientist working as a clinical chemist, and our son is in training to become an M.D.-Ph.D. neuropathologist. My wife is a senior scientist at a major teaching hospital. Making sure you are noticed can give you the edge you need over your silent competition.”

Maestre says that “we need new successful scientist models, beyond the white man who is obsessed with research day and night.”

Apart from this vision and the possible intra-history of the Diamandis family, Maestre assures that “we need new successful scientist models, beyond the white man who is obsessed with research day and night. We need them, and they exist.”

For Maria Blasco, director of the National Cancer Research Center (Spanish acronym: CNIO), “it is true that in laboratory work, especially at the training level, sometimes the project may require flexible schedules. Ultimately, however, the 37.5-hour working week should be respected.”

Another reason for this situation in the laboratories is the lack of training in leadership for researchers. In a survey conducted by Nature magazine, up to two-thirds of group leaders said they had not had this type of training. Of the remaining laboratory staff, 40% thought that mentoring their leaders would improve the science being done by the group. Among those less satisfied with their situation, 70% indicated that as their greatest wish.

Gary McDowell, executive director of Future of Research, an advocacy organization for young scientists, summarised the scene as follows: “The communication of experiences between senior and junior researchers is dismal. They live almost in separate worlds.”

Excellence, an Escher hand?

Above or below all these issues is the concept of “excellence”, a vague term that marks the distribution of resources, which could be summarized as “to be good is no longer enough; excellence, by definition, must go beyond that” and which would include “some combination of research quality, along with impact.”

In general, it is based on the impact factor of the journals where the results are published. An Escher hand drawing itself and in which the way of evaluating conditions the whole way of producing.

That system is being questioned. For the director of the Wellcome Foundation, Jeremy Farrar, “the emphasis on excellence in the research system is stifling diverse thinking and positive behaviours. (…) [It] has created a culture in modern science that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved.” 

For Farrar, “the emphasis on excellence is stifling diverse thinking. It has created a culture in modern science that cares exclusively about what is achieved and not about how it is achieved.”

According to Farrar, focusing on excellence contributes to “destructive hyper-competition, toxic power dynamics and poor leadership behaviour.” That impact is not merely related to the quality of life in labs, but to science itself.

Some hold it responsible for the growing problems of result reproducibility, fraud and homophily, the concept whereby one tends to reward that which is keeping with what is normative and in which the reviewers already have previous experience.

Maria Blasco is far more optimistic. “It's true that science is competitive, but no more so than any other profession based on meritocracy,” she says. “Science evaluates the merit and importance of discoveries, which is something measurable and not subject to subjective assessments. These measurements can be highly varied, from the impact of journals to the number of citations of papers or the impact on innovation in terms of number of patents, spin-offs, sales, etc.”

However, criticism of the system is already under consideration by the European Commission. In a paper interviewing a number of researchers, it was noted that “the idea of excellence as a measure of science quality makes many people uncomfortable,” but that “these people — despite their discomfort — cannot suggest anything better, given that science and scientists must meet political demands of accountability and assessment.”

It's difficult, but there are already some suggestions to incorporate into the debate. Some of these will be discussed in the second part of this report, along with an analysis of scientific productivity by country and living conditions in their laboratories, as well as proposals for improving the latter. Because, as Gareth Hughes said, “there’s a belief that doing a PhD should make you ill, if you’re doing it properly. It’s bizarre.”

Source: SINC
Copyright: Creative Commons