Wednesday, October 30, 2019

About toxic working culture in science

Recently, I have read this excellent article on mental health in academia. It emphasizes the consequences of a toxic working culture in academia on mental health, with a focus on PhD students. I would like to provide here a few reflections on my own experience with this topic, both as a scientist, but also as a professor.

The first experience is that I very often encounter the phrase that 'we should be grateful that we have the opportunity to do what we like/love' to justify bad working conditions. While I am certainly happy that I do something I like to do, this should never be used in any circumstances to justify circumstances. Because it puts us as people being only granted something, and which equally well can be taken away. Because its meaning can be easily shifted to 'we should be thankful that it is not worse', and thus to justify the status quo for being afraid of consequences when trying to improve the situation. And ultimately to paint the picture of willful suffering just to be able to do something which is important to one.

This is then used to justify almost anything. Even more so, it is seen as an act of individual heroism to still do science, in face of such conditions. I have often witness scenes where people have tried to outdo others by the sheer amount of hours/week they worked. Or how many days of holiday they did not use. Of course, this is fired up by a perpetual overcommitment of people, necessitated often by all the various things we have to do. As scientists, we are expected not only to do science, but also teaching, outreach, presentation in form of talks and paper writing, fact checker as reviewers, marketing in form of research grants, and administrative duties both for research grants as well as within University and for national and international infrastructure in many commissions, i.e. management. While at the same time it is expected to explored with creativity and solve the deepest problems of research. To this comes often the impression of our own grandeur that we know everything better and we cannot delegate anything because we are the only ones who can get it done right. Which is outright wrong.

Of course, this is driven by precarious working conditions until one reaches a permanent position, often for decades, at payment levels which are very low compared to research and development positions in industry. By making the resource of permanent employment scarce and competitive, essentially by turning science into another branch of capitalism, the same happens as everywhere else in capitalism: To ensure ones survival, one puts up with being slowly destroyed by the working conditions. This gets its toxic turn by accusing people of not having enough dedication if they do not overwork themselves. This goes on at a reduced level once permanency is reached, by making resources to do our work scarce and getting them again competitive.

Given that research into work has established that peak effectivity is attained around thirty hours of work a week, this is actually damaging science. When we work much longer, we usually do not get so much more work done. And at some point, we get even less work done, because we start to err too often. Of course, this is a distribution, and there are tails. But an average scientist is also an average human being. Scientist may still overpopulate the tail of this distribution, but this is then selected by the working conditions, and who can suffer them, and not by the brilliance and creativity of the researcher.

Of course, it is easy to buy into the picture of the never-tiring scientist, working all time to discover the greatest secrets. This is how we are often depicted in literature or film. Can you name any scientist, who actually saves the day, who is regularly working only forty hours? I cannot. And especially as a young person, it is even easier to find oneself in pursuit of such a heroic idealization. At the time we get a permanent position, most just carry on like this, because it has become very internalized.

My own experience is in the beginning quite like this. I wanted to solve the scientific problem. I cannot remember actually to reflect upon my working times, or even track it. It was certainly much more than I got paid for. And when many years later I started to change this, I had a very bad consciousness when moving my actual work time towards the amount of time I was paid for. Even though I realized quite quickly that I still get essentially the same amount of work done. Thus proving to myself that what I written about peak effectivity is true for me. However, I have been quite privileged in this development, because failing in getting a permanent position was quite acceptable for me. And even now I do not feel the urge to 'discover something really big' or 'getting acknowledge by grants or prizes', the later being recognized to be just another tool to exploit scientists by letting them actively fight against each other for scraps of resources.

Now, as a professor, I feel the obligation to bring through these points to students. Which turns out to be very complicated. I hear my younger self echoed too often. Like I want to finish fast, or I think this is too important. It is very hard arguing, because the counter argument is self care. And we have so often seen the trope of the scientists sacrificing themselves for the greater good. How can I be a good scientist (or even a good human being), when I do not put the greater good of science above petty personal necessities?

Well, the true answer is that a sane, well-cared for scientist will be doing just as much as an overworked one. And will do so for a much longer time. Not only bodily, because I can better avoid problems like cardiac arrest by stress, by also mentally. Just as the article points out.

What do I do concretely? Besides trying to implement the points mentioned in the article, I do my best to reduce the capitalistic structures in science. By using my influence wherever possible to create easier career paths, and by generally attempting to espouse a cooperative rather than a competitive culture. I certainly fail far too often in this endeavour. Because it means unlearning something I have engulfed in for far too long. But I listen to those doing research about work, about mental and bodily well-being, and to those I work with. Perhaps I can improve it at least a little bit.