Author: Danko Antolovic
The Broken Workplace
Prominent journals of popular science have lately seen a spate of articles about the horrors of the academic-scientific work environment: harassment, bullying, personal burnout, and theoverall “toxic” atmosphere of research groups. The discussion usually proposes remedies like harassment-awareness seminars, anti-bullying efforts of various kinds, and general exhortations toward greater “collegiality.” What should we make of all that?
Well, as scientists, people of enlightenment and reason, we know that understanding the cause is the first step in addressing a problem. And if we look honestly at the situation, we see two distinct but related causes staring us in the face: competition for resources and a rigid professional hierarchy.
Competing for Resources
Academic science is consumed with the competition for grant money. Funds are necessary to do the work that generates personal credentials, such as publications and academic rank, and these credentials are then used to justify the next round of funding. Researchers have little choice but to follow this cycle if they want to stay in the game.
Since the money is always tight, people look for cheap resources to exploit, usually lower down in the hierarchy. Graduate students—and sometimes even undergraduates—are routinely put under pressure to crank out publishable work, even though they are still only apprentices in their field and, in most cases, cannot be reasonably expected to make meaningful research contributions. The obvious goal of this pressure is to add to their advisors’ quota of published results, to be submitted with the next grant application. Graduate students also serve as a reservoir of inexpensive teaching labor for their university.
Junior faculty, on the other hand, are an important source of outside money for their institution, money which is usually discreetly called “extramural funding,” and which confirms the (desirable) status of the institution as a research university. Proven ability to secure outside money is an absolute must for faculty hirings and promotions, and a typical school appropriates and manages a sizable portion of this money as research operating expenses. As a junior prof once told me: “You are expected to raise your own salary and the salaries of a few other people as well.”
In this environment, there are no colleagues in the old-fashioned sense, only rivals. I have seen people in research groups deliberately obfuscate presentation of their current work to colleagues, for fear of getting scooped. My years as a university IT professional have made me keenly aware of how touchy researchers are about their IT privacy. They are not worried about hackers: they are worried about the guy in the office next door. And in my years as a researcher, I worried about the same thing.
The Academic Totem Pole
As for the hierarchy, all workplaces are hierarchical, but the academic hierarchy is different. At a small college at which I worked, an undergraduate student once literally wept in my office, relating the insulting conduct of a faculty member who had considerable say over her undergraduate thesis. What was I to say? I knew that the injury to her dignity would have to go unrequited, unless she was prepared to endanger her upcoming graduation by making noise about it. I advised her to rise above the insults, and to understand that that is how things are.
What is a graduate student to do about an advisor who casually demeans students, demands servility of them, or worse? A grad student in a typical program is committed to a particular research project, guided by a particular advisor with expertise on the subject; the student has invested several years in this work and depends on the advisor’s help with the next career step. A mid-stream program change entails great disruption and a waste of effort.
What is a junior faculty to do but grovel before his tenure committee members? Tenure opportunity is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime commodity in the academic world, and rare is the soul who will barter it away for some personal dignity.
In ordinary employment, it is possible to walk away from a bad boss. Even highly skilled professionals’ commitment of effort and responsibility usually does not extend past the current quarter, and the price of defiance is a temporary loss of income, which can be regained elsewhere, along with a continued successful career. In academia , a scientific professional is locked into successive multi-year career commitments, in which changes of course are very costly and second chances as good as nonexistent; he/she is dependent on the mercies of the superiors, with little meaningful recourse. Surprised at the abuse? We should be surprised that we don’t hear more about it.
Healing the workplace
What is there to do, indeed? The causes of this misery are structural: the academic-scientific work environment is awful because of the way the scientific community is funded and organized, and well-meaning superficial remedies will have no effect. Once the sensitivity training seminars have been attended, and the human-relations consultants have departed, things will invariably revert to the old order, dictated by the need for money and by the vanities of human nature. The problem can only be addressed at its source.
The first source, the unbridled short-term competition, is harmful in more ways than one: apart from making life miserable, it also diminishes the depth and quality of the science that comes out of it. It would be a worthwhilestructural reform to begin treating the scientific enterprise as a public good, akin to public education, road-building and the like, and subjecting its funding to public consensus and oversight . This would replace the current grant-chasing bazaar with long-term public commitments to projects that are fewer in numbers but of greater public value; it would give researchers a relief from the endless funding race, and to their efforts it would give a steady direction and a sense of value beyond promoting their individual careers.
The second factor, the abusiveness of the hierarchy, is a harder thing to address: it is rooted in some unpleasant traits of human nature, traits which everyone possesses to a degree, and those on top merely have a freer hand in expressing them. As a practical measure, introduction of labor laws and enforceable standards of conduct, tailored to address the academic environment, would be helpful in stemming excess and abuse. In that vein, it is heartening to see attempts at unionizing among the graduate students at some universities.
Lastly, we should not deceive ourselves: healing the broken workplace of the scientist requires reforming the broken way science is done in our time, nothing less. Reforms will be resisted, as they always are, by those who fear change, and by those who stand to lose some perks in the process. But we, the scientists, must remind ourselves — and each other — that true scientific inquiry seeks knowledge that is more important than our professional creds, knowledge that makes human life better. By reclaiming that ideal, we will practice better, happier, more fulfilling science again.