Science is being blamed for the mental-health crisis

How scientists work, and how to make it better: Why scientists need more women in science and what science can we do to help them achieve their goals?

Another explanation suggested in the study6 is that many scientists see their work as a vocation, not just a job. The challenge of being a data scientist is unique, and it also means that researchers are passionate. He thinks that work is part of your identity and that it’s a life choice. For years, you buy into that until you find out what it is. Take away a lot of the parts, make it more generic, and it’s just an abusive relationship.”

Scientists are turning to solutions as evidence of all these problems grows. There is not a lot of clarity as to what needs to change. We were quite upset and felt powerless even when we looked at the results from the study. We decided that it would be very difficult to effect change.

Grassroots initiatives by graduate students and postdocs have led to various events and workshops, even yoga meet-ups. Drives to form PhD student and postdoc unions on US campuses have also sought guarantees of better working conditions. “It is the beginning of a movement that hopefully over generations of academics will result in long-term change,” Evans says. “And I feel like we have all the pieces to see that happen. It just takes time.

Researchers are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than the general population. And although the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in mental-health struggles, many argue that it only exacerbated problems that were already present. The recent studies, which have collectively surveyed tens of thousands of researchers worldwide, suggest that scientists’ mental-health struggles are a direct result of a toxic research culture.

At the root of the problem is the mismatch between the idea of a university as a refuge for lone geniuses and the collaborative nature of contemporary science. As Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, reminds us in her book Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women In Science, published earlier this month, much science today is a team effort. It frequently involves large numbers of researchers collaborating within and across laboratories, and often across countries and cultures. What matters is that teams work together, complementing each other’s strengths and compensating for one another’s weaknesses, always with an eye on completing the task at hand. Good science has more to do with hierarchy than with it. Donald reminded us that studies show the benefit of discovery in teams with people from historically under-represented groups but that these contributions are often ignored or undermined. Proc. There is a Natl Acad. Sci. USA 117, 9284–9291; 2020).

“In our interviews, scientists said that the pandemic was really just the tipping point,” says study co-author Brandon Vaidyanathan, a sociologist at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. The Pandemic exposed things like burnout and emotional exhaustion. It amplified these effects.”

More than 3000 physicists and biologists were surveyed in the United Kingdom, USA, Italy and India, as well as interviews with over 200 scientists, in one study. It found that the pandemic only exacerbated issues that were already present10.

The Center for Studies in Higher Education at University of California, Berkeley, led the study which found that it was a disaster.

In a 2020 survey of 5,247 graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from 9 institutions across the United States, 38% reported symptoms consistent with anxiety and 35% had depression8. The proportions were from what the same team found in 2019. The number of students with depression doubled, and the prevalence of anxiety rose by 50%8.

Scientists have raised concerns for years about the impacts of all these pressures on mental health. The studies from the past few years are now providing hard data. The findings show that the situation is not good.

A proliferation of short-term contracts, low salaries (particularly for early-career researchers), competitive working environments and pressure to publish are all contributors — but so are bullying, discrimination and harassment. The devastating effects that this behavior can have on people of all races, ethnicities and income levels has been reported in study after study.

Teresa Evans discovered that her students were struggling after directing graduate biomedical career development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. She was ill-equipped to help when they came to her for advice.

The rates varied significantly by gender: female, transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents were more likely to struggle with mental health than were their male counterparts. The prevalence of anxiety and depression was 55% and 57% for transgender and gender-nonconforming graduate students, 43% and 41% for women and 34% and 35% for men. That didn’t surprise Evans, because women are more prone to anxiety and depression than are men2.

Sexual harassment in science that affects women is a bigger factor at work. In 2014, Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, documented high rates of sexual harassment in field science3 . 30% of women felt unsafe because of their gender, compared to 2% of men, after she and her colleagues surveyed 474 astronomer and planetary scientists.

It’s not just a problem in the United States. A survey carried out in 2020 by a major pharmaceutical research funder in London shows that more than 45% of scientists had experienced some form of intimidation or harassment and 61% had witnessed it. 34% felt that leaders turned a blind eye to the behavior, and 18% felt that it was culturally systemic.

The Wellcome study6 found that 70% of respondents felt stressed on the average workday, and 34% had sought professional help for mental-health issues. Many participants blamed funders and institutes for emphasizing quantity over quality in terms of publishing and obtaining grant money because it contributes to poor work–life balance.

To do better, university administrations and governing bodies need to look outside the campus to find solutions. Internal structures need to change to reflect how science is done today. And modern systems of employee redress for when things go wrong — such as those that encourage whistle-blowing — need to be implemented.

Yet the research system still tends to put power in the hands of just one person, or a few people. When grants are granted, the responsibility for them usually goes to the principal investigators not the members of the research team. That often means that large numbers of early-career researchers — 50 or more in some fields — are under the supervision of a single principal investigator. In the same way, departments and faculties have a single person at the top. And in general, this ‘officer class’ comprises people from less-diverse backgrounds than those they are supervising.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When power, responsibility and autonomy are shared, people work more collegially, and step up when required. But if power is vested in one person, or only a few people, it can be misused to harass, undermine and bully others. All too often, this is what happens.

This is why universities are structurally ill-equipped to provide redress against poor behaviour. Although universities have whistle-blowing procedures which protect people from being disciplined if they reveal wrongdoing, they discourage an anonymity for those who draw attention to it. It’s said that it makes complaints harder to investigate. This is often true, but anonymous whistle-blowing provides a fairer way to obtain justice in an environment in which the person perpetrating harm is often also the person ultimately responsible for an individual’s career prospects.

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