‘Psychopaths get an edge’: Half of young researchers harassed or bullied, says study

Key points

  • PhD graduations have increased exponentially, but research funding is falling
  • That creates immense pressure for young researchers
  • In a new survey, they report widespread unhappiness and bullying
  • Most-concerning, one in 10 has seen evidence of research misconduct

Almost half of Australia’s young scientists have been harassed or bullied at work, a study shows, while more than three-quarters say now is a bad time to start a research career and one in 10 has seen a colleague making up data.

The authors of the Queensland University of Technology study say 15 years of falling research funding combined with exponential increases in the number of PhD graduates has turned academia into a dog-eat-dog world.

Dr Trevor Steward now warns his University of Melbourne PhD students about the “meat grinder” that is academia for many. Credit:Joe Armao

“They are hysterically running on a treadmill,” said Dr Kate Christian, the study’s leader. Her data suggested early-career research was a valley of death, “with all the early-career researchers falling off the cliff”.

The study surveyed 530 young researchers around Australia, most of whom were women.

Some 47.8 per cent of respondents said they had experienced harassment or bullying, 76 per cent said now was a poor time to start a research career and 10 per cent said they were aware of colleagues making up data.

The federal government pays universities for every PhD student who graduates.

Christian said this had led to a big increase in the number of PhDs graduating: about 10,000 a year, up from about 4000 two decades ago.

Over the same period, research and development funding has fallen, leaving many new graduates unable to get the science jobs they were expecting.

Dr Trevor Steward, a neurobiologist researching the causes of psychiatric disorders, now warns his University of Melbourne PhD students about the “meat grinder” that is academia. “It’s often very demoralising for them. But you want to be honest,” he said.

Because PhD students have their wages met by the government, research labs often view them as cheap labour. It costs just a few thousand dollars to employ a PhD student on a scholarship, versus $100,000-plus to employ an early-career researcher, Steward said.

At the same time, PhD students know their chances of career success rely on publishing as many papers as possible with highly credentialed scientists.

Falling research funding and increased numbers of PhD graduates has turned academia into a dog-eat-dog world.Credit:iStock

This creates a “very vulnerable” workforce that is often taken advantage of, Steward said.

Of the survey respondents who said they had been harassed or bullied, most said it was by their direct supervisor. Multiple respondents said harassment or bullying had left them suicidal.

“Academia rewards academics who abuse, steal, falsify and destroy others to claim their fame,” wrote one respondent. “It is sad that narcissistic/psychopathic personalities get an edge.”

The Age spoke to three early-career researchers who all confirmed bullying and harassment in the field were widespread.

Dr Mohammad Taha, chair of the Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum, said bullying and harassment were real and had long-lasting effects on many early and mid-career researchers.

“The fates of early-career researchers are in the hands of a very few select people. Whenever you have concentrated power structures in any system, it encourages abuse,” Taha said.

A preprint of the study was uploaded in December, but it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The study suggests this culture of cut-throat competition is leading some scientists to do the wrong thing. It shows almost one in 10 researchers had seen their colleagues making up data from experiments.

“I know of cases,” said Steward. “It’s a perfect storm – someone is really desperate. You have all these external forces that are pushing them.”

Associate Professor Michael Doran, one of the study’s co-authors and a director at AstraZeneca, said his lab was regularly unable to reproduce scientific experiments put out by other labs. “There’s a lot of science we don’t necessarily believe from our peers.”

Australian research institutes have been stung by several high-profile research misconduct allegations in the past few years. One of the nation’s leading cancer scientists was referred to corruption investigators in 2021, leading to calls for a research watchdog to be established.

But on Tuesday, the government quietly knocked back a parliamentary report recommending the establishment of a National Research Integrity Office, saying it was concerned about “reputational impacts”.

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