16 Jan 2020   |   News

Researchers suffering ‘shocking’ levels of stress, poll reveals

Wellcome survey exposes widespread pressure linked to metrics, competition for grants and demand for high impact research. Many respondents said bullying and harassment is “culturally systemic”

Pressure to bring performance in line with metrics, win grants, and produce impactful research are contributing to shocking levels of stress and mental health problems among scientists, according to a survey carried out by the biomedical research charity Wellcome Trust.

Fewer than one third of scientists who took part in the survey said they felt secure pursuing a research career. Many respondents reported concern with the “growing dominance and impact of metrics”, such as quality of publications and citations.

Generally, researchers believe there is increasing competition for grants, funds and jobs – with more people fighting for fewer resources. This is creating conditions ripe for aggressive behaviour and high pressure to succeed and survive in research workplaces.

Nearly two thirds of scientists say they have witnessed bullying or harassment, with many believing it had become “culturally systemic” in science.

“These results paint a shocking portrait of the research environment – and one we must all help change,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust.

The survey, a collaboration with the Shift Learning consultancy, involved in-depth interviews with 94 UK-based researchers and an online survey that was completed by 4,267 scientists.

Interviewees say they feel “judged on their lack of impactful findings, as opposed to their ability to perform excellent research”.

Only 14 per cent of researchers agree that current metrics have had a positive impact on research culture, and nearly half said they believe that their workplace puts more value on metrics than on research quality.

It was also felt that funders’ emphasis on impact is “negatively affecting creativity”. This led to some research subjects and techniques being prioritised at the expense of others, pushing academics to produce research not directly related to their field of interest. They also felt that less attention and funding are given to fundamental research.

One respondent described how universities are pulling researchers “in too many directions. That makes doing research tricky, because to really do the very best research, you need clear blocks of time. Having 40 minutes free, or an hour, just doesn’t cut the mustard,” the respondent said.

Following the survey’s release, Wellcome says it wants to help “reimagine” research careers.

“Funders like Wellcome have – often unintentionally – shaped the current culture through the rewards, requirements and support we put in place for researchers,” said Beth Thompson, Wellcome’s head of UK and EU policy. “We now have a responsibility to reimagine research, and to use our influence consciously as a tool for change.”

Thompson recalls how, during her own PhD, a senior research suggested to her to “bin my data, cut my losses and move on to a new research job in search of sexier results and papers that I could launch a career from.”

Wellcome says it will gather more researcher feedback in the coming month, and share ideas for a better research culture at a summit in March.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up