An article published under a pseudonym in Science in October 2016 brought to light yet another alleged incident of bullying and harassment in the academic sciences. The type and extent of psychological abuse in academia is systemic across institutions and as varied as the disciplines and personalities inhabiting it, says Juan Pablo Ruiz.
If any changes are to come about, there needs to be a shift not only in the culture, but also in the policies that govern the way universities handle student privacy and supervisor accountability. Strong leadership is required to face and handle the uncomfortable but much-needed conversations regarding the failure of some scientists in their responsibility to train the next generation of researchers.
A power imbalance results from the trust placed on supervisors, a trust that, when broken, leads to the current silence and learned helplessness from students, postdocs, and counsellors alike, all over the world. Unfortunately, students must also contend with the clear conflict of interest for universities when asking them to hold professors, their sources of grant money and prestige, accountable for abusive behaviour.
Students and postdocs should, in an ideal working environment, feel the concerns they raise with the administration will not only be taken seriously, but that proper actions will be taken to ensure incidents are not repeated in the future. Otherwise, the risk of switching labs and sometimes fields, that can come from flagging such behaviour, is too great.
Lack of data on the incidence of abuse doesn’t help either. Studies such as SAFE, which pointed out the prevalence of sexual harassment experiences encountered by trainee scientists out in the field, are a step in the right direction. But these are few and far in between, and focus solely on sexual harassment. Though reporting on this type of abuse is sorely needed, conversation on other forms of abuse that can be equally damaging to young academic’s career is missing.
Despite this, there has been some progress, such as a statement by the NIH on their full commitment to ending sexual harassment in science, as well as a bill introduced to Congress last year which aimed to hold group leaders accountable for sexual harassment through withholding of funds. Though the bill unfortunately did not pass, these measures set the precedence for tackling all forms of harassment, bullying, and abuse in academia.
It is the need for these types of culture and policy shifts, along with some training at Oxford’s counselling centre I took two years ago, that inspired me to build my website, Labmosphere.
The site is a mix of blog, resource center, and tools to promote wellbeing, mental health, and overall life satisfaction in the academic sciences.
Topics range from the personal (managing stress, expectations, and mental health), to the local (managing mentor relationships and difficult conversations), and to the systemic and cultural (redefining success, ending lab bullying). The blog, however, is open to all submissions and encourages writing from all levels of academia, seeking to empower everyone’s voice and consolidate a dialogue that is already occurring in labs across the nation.
For most cases of abuse, it has been investigative reporting which brings allegations to light, leading to public outrage followed by recognition of the problem and subsequent action. Twitter hashtags have also become a particularly useful tool for women scientists fighting sexism and discrimination in their careers, as this article in Nature explains.
The hope with Labmosphere’s tools then, in a similar spirit, is to build enough awareness and pressure for universities and institutions to start taking responsibility for the actions of their staff, and holding those who do not respect the human dignity of their students, postdocs, and employees accountable.
Ultimately, it is in everyone’s best interest, including that of those doing the abusing (more effective management strategies would lead to greater lab output and reduced stress levels), that these behaviours stop. My goal with the site is not to point fingers and shame people, as studies in psychology and social work have shown this only exacerbates the problem.
Rather, my hope is that the anonymous tools will shame the behavioirs, as well as create a sense of solidarity among victims to show that they are not alone, that together, it is possible to #EndLabBullying.
Juan Pablo Ruiz is currently studying a PhD in Biomedical Sciences. His research interests are in stem cell biology and tissue engineering, and his work focuses on differentiating hematopoietic stem cells for therapeutic applications. He is also the founder and editor of Labmosphere.com. His interests outside the lab include creative writing, positive psychology, and languages.