A mental-health crisis is gripping science — toxic research culture is to blame

With researchers reporting high rates of anxiety and depression, calls are growing to fundamentally change science before it’s too late.

There is a mental-health crisis in science — at all career stages and across the world. Graduate students are being harassed and discriminated against, paid meagre wages, bullied, overworked and sometimes sexually assaulted. It doesn’t get much better for early-career researchers struggling to land long-term employment. And established senior researchers face immense pressure to win grants, publish in high-profile journals and maintain their reputations in highly competitive fields.

Scientists have raised concerns for years about the impacts of all these pressures on mental health. But a series of studies in the past few years are now providing hard data. And the findings show that the situation is dire.

Researchers are much more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety. 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.

That is particularly true for members of under-represented groups, including women, non-binary individuals, people of colour, those from sexual and gender minorities (LGBTQ+) and students on low incomes. But they also affect senior researchers and scientists in different countries.

“Well-being and how to set healthy boundaries in your life and in your work is a fundamental skill,” says Sharon Milgram, director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). “I feel like there was a blind spot in myself and many of us, in that it took this data to wake us up.”

With hard numbers in hand, some argue that science is at the beginning of a movement — one that will encourage systemic changes to improve the mental health of researchers over generations to come. Others argue that change is happening too slowly for young scientists who are already fleeing science — an effect that could have grim consequences for the future of research and society itself.

A global problem

In 2015, Teresa Evans, who directed graduate biomedical career development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, learnt that her students were struggling. But when they came to her for advice, she felt ill-equipped to help.

So Evans started her own research, only to uncover a dearth of literature on the topic. Not only were there few resources on how to help students, but it was unclear how extensive mental-health problems were — compelling Evans to circulate her own survey to quantify the matter.

She received 2,279 responses, mostly from PhD candidates, at 234 institutions across 26 countries.

The results, published in March 2018, represented the largest survey of its kind at the time. It revealed a global problem: 41% of respondents reported moderate to severe anxiety and 39% had moderate to severe depression. Those levels are six times greater than in the general population. The data also suggested possible sources of these mental-health problems — anxiety and depression were often correlated with poor work–life balance and poor mentor relationships.

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 men.

But there was another, bigger factor at work: sexual harassment in science that disproportionately affects women. In 2014, Kathryn Clancy, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, documented high rates of sexual harassment in field science3 . Then, in 2017, she and her colleagues surveyed 474 astronomers and planetary scientists, and found that 30% of women felt unsafe because of their gender (compared with 2% of men)4.

These studies encouraged the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to appoint a special committee to examine the issue in academic settings. In June 2018, it released a report that revealed pervasive and damaging sexual harassment in.

This report was published by Nature

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