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Stress, anxiety, harassment: huge survey reveals pressures of scientists’ working lives

Water samples undergo a quality control test at Mosvodokanals Lyubertsy water treatment plant

Researchers work in competitive environments that cause stress and anxiety, a survey reports.Credit: Stanislav Krasilnikov/TASS/Getty

A survey of more than 4,000 scientists has painted a damning picture of the culture in which they work, suggesting that highly competitive and often hostile environments are damaging the quality of research.

Around 80% of the survey’s participants — mostly academic researchers in the United Kingdom — believed that competition had fostered mean or aggressive working conditions, and half described struggles with depression or anxiety. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported witnessing bullying or harassment and 43% said they had experienced it.

“These results paint a shocking portrait of the research environment — and one we must all help change,” says Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome, a major research funder in London that conducted the study with market-research agency Shift Learning. “A poor research culture ultimately leads to poor research.”

Farrar says that Wellcome — which supports some 15,000 people working in science worldwide — is committed to addressing the issues highlighted by the survey, and calls on the entire research system to get on board. “The pressures of working in research must be recognized and acted upon by all, from funders to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions,” he says.

Unsustainable environment

Wellcome conducted the survey, published on 15 January, as part of a broader drive to improve working environments in science. It says the push for excellence has created a troubling culture. “It’s more than clear that our current research practice is not sustainable,” says Beth Thompson, who leads Wellcome’s research-culture initiatives. “We knew things were not right, from our own discussions with scientists, from high-profile bullying cases, reports of misconduct and irreproducibility.”

Source: What Researchers Think About the Culture They Work In (Wellcome, 2020)

The results come from an online survey open to all researchers, which was answered by around 4,300 people across career stages and disciplines. Respondents hailed from 87 countries; three-quarters were in the United Kingdom. Workshops with 36 UK-based researchers and in-depth interviews with 94 also informed the findings.

Most researchers reported having pride in their institutions and passion for their work, but spoke of the high personal toll of their environment. Many accepted that pressure and long hours came with the territory — two-thirds of respondents said they worked for more than 40 hours a week. But researchers said that the situation was worsening and that the negative aspects were no longer offset by job security and the ability to work autonomously, flexibly and creatively. Barely 30% of respondents felt that there was job security in research careers.

Many blamed funders and institutes that emphasize performance indicators and metrics such as number of publications and the impact factors of journals in which researchers publish. They said that the importance of these metrics is often stressed in ways that reduce morale and encourage researchers to game the system. Some said that good management could shelter scientists from such distorting pressures, but that it was too seldom applied.

One-quarter of respondents thought that the quality of research suffered in the unsupportive environments. The same proportion had felt pressured by their supervisors to produce a particular result.

Global pattern

Similar findings about working conditions have emerged from other surveys, including a 2019 Nature survey of thousands of PhD students in which half of respondents said their work culture required long hours and working through the night. Another study last year, of 9,000 employees of Germany’s Max Planck Society (MPS), revealed that about 18% of respondents had experienced bullying.

“It’s the same overall pattern globally,” says chemist Ferdinand Schüth, who is vice-president of the MPS. Next month, the MPS will launch a department in its central headquarters in Munich aimed at improving research culture by, for instance, giving scientists training in leadership and mentorship. “We know we need to provide a good working environment to be attractive to the best scientists,” says Schüth.

Over the next few months, Wellcome will hold a series of ‘town hall’ meetings at UK universities to discuss the issues raised in the survey. In March, it will hold a summit to develop a plan of action. “Wellcome now wants to extend its definition of research excellence beyond ‘what’ is done, to ‘how’ it is done,” says Thompson.

Nature 577, 460-461 (2020)



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