Research perspectives

Survey finds widespread “toxic behaviour” in science research

A survey commissioned by the Wellcome Trust, the biomedical research funder, has found evidence of discrimination and widespread bullying and harassment amongst scientists, contributing to “shocking levels” of stress and mental health problems.

The research 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 female. 6% of respondents reported a disability.

Nearly two thirds of those who took part had witnessed bullying or harassment and 43% have experienced it themselves. Just one in three (37%) feel comfortable speaking up, with many doubting appropriate action will be taken. There was a strong belief that bullying and harassment 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 working day.

The survey highlights a system that imposes a hierarchy in which superiors can seem to do no wrong, and where subordinates can feel powerless to complain.

The director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar, found the results “frankly shocking”. He said, “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.”

Dealing with how to respond to these findings will form part of the Trust’s ‘Reimagining Research’ campaign.