Skip To Content
Cambridge University Science Magazine
Science attracts many bright, young minds. PhD applications describe enthusiastic and curious graduate students who enjoyed their undergraduate studies and, with vocational intent, are passionate about studying the natural world around them. Why is it, that despite this intention, around 70% of PhD students quit academia and do not continue to pursue academic roles? In this article, we cover one of the causes of this disillusionment: competitive research laboratory cultures that can foster toxic behaviours such as bullying and sabotage.

While these issues range in severity, there have been several instances of laboratory arguments resulting in high profile court cases. In 2014, a Stanford laboratory student was charged with four counts of felony for poisoning. She filled her colleagues’ drinking water bottles with a toxic, clear paraformaldehyde solution. Similarly, in 2009, a coffee machine in Harvard University was filled with water containing a high concentration of a toxic chemical which can be fatal in high doses. One professor openly told the press that he believed it was 'not an accident'. These rather extreme cases point to an underlying problem that stems from academia's competitive culture.

Unfortunately, less extreme cases of sabotage and dishonesty often go unnoticed. These incidents can range from experimental sabotage (e.g. mysterious alterations of laboratory equipment settings) to verbal threats. The statistics show clearly that harassment, bullying, and misconduct is far from uncommon. A recent survey by Wellcome found that 61% of researchers have witnessed bullying or harassment, with 43% experiencing it themselves. Often, laboratory members are reluctant to speak up about such occurrences, wary of lengthy complaints processes and potential repercussions. In other cases, issues were raised with a person of higher authority but little was done to address the problem.

In our experience, everyone working in science knows at least one person who has been affected by these issues. At BlueSci, we have collected several anonymous anecdotes to illustrate the range of experiences researchers can have.

One researcher told us: 'Halfway through my PhD, I realised that a colleague was coming into the lab at night to destroy existing data and disturb experiments. Although my supervisor was initially shocked and supportive, once I gathered video evidence, a senior figure in the department warned me that I would face consequences if I chose to formally complain. My supervisor also suddenly changed their mind — they further threatened they would try to have a negative impact on my career if I spoke up. I had no choice but to leave the lab. Luckily, I managed to change supervisors while keeping my PhD funding and staying in the same university. These events affected my productivity and have taken an emotional toll on me that I have struggled with throughout the rest of my PhD'.

For others, PhDs become a time of emotionally stressful detective work. In one anecdote, a PhD student had problems with the communal microscope. After months of struggling, and loss of many important samples, she discovered that a senior lab member was placing a post-it in front of the laser source before her imaging sessions. In another instance, a PhD student continued to find their experimental worms mysteriously dying over the weekends with no obvious cause. To test their suspicions, the student labelled only half of their experimental animals. As expected, they found that only the worms explicitly labelled with their name were found dead the following Monday. When the student went to their supervisor for support, the mysterious acts were dismissed and rather, the student was told to come in on the weekends to take better care of their experiments. 'I didn’t feel comfortable escalating the issue to human resources, but I also couldn’t feasibly continue my work. I discontinued animal work for the rest of my PhD'.

Listening to such anecdotes, it is not difficult to see why PhD students often suffer mental health problems. One researcher explains this constant distrust and paranoia. 'Imagine worrying about losing months of hard work every time you store away your samples to go home, imagine having to work side-by-side and small talk with people who would not blink twice before sabotaging your work'.

A common thread across these stories is institutional silence. This silence not only hurts victims, but also leaves harassers unpunished. In prioritising strategies to prevent these incidents from happening, a key step that universities and funding agencies can take is to set up robust reporting systems for victims of bullying and harassment. If these troubling actions continue going unpunished, there will be little incentive for the perpetrators to stop targeting more people.

Although such reporting mechanisms exist, at least in theory, they are often ineffective. Many research institutions have a strong culture of silence aimed at limiting reputational damage. This is best exemplified by a BBC investigation which found that UK universities had devoted in excess of £87 million to funding non-disclosure agreements between 2017 and 2019 to keep stories of bullying and harassment from entering the public domain.

Even in the extremely rare cases where institutions take action, consequences are short-lived. Just take the case of Prof Nazneen Rahman, CBE. Once a prominent researcher at the Institute for Cancer Research in London, she resigned due to bullying allegations and had £3.5 million in funding from the Wellcome Trust revoked. However, shortly after she was appointed as a Non-Executive Director of AstraZeneca.

As funding bodies rely on university-level reporting systems, they often do not handle misconduct cases relating to people they fund, and explicitly decline to be involved. However, this may soon change. Wellcome, a major UK-based funding body, has recently changed its policy regarding bullying, According to the Wellcome website, institutions receiving Wellcome funding will now 'be required to tell [Wellcome] of allegations when they decide to investigate'. This policy has been welcomed as a step in the right direction, but some scientists think more could still be done. For example, funding bodies may take the whole reporting system into their own hands, since the university systems are often marred by conflicts of interest and a desire to maintain pristine reputations.

There are other areas, however, that funders can directly influence. When reflecting about what drove people to extreme behaviours in the lab, victims often cite skewed incentives and a toxic work culture. Data seems to corroborate this account — a recent survey by Wellcome found that 78% of researchers believed that high levels of competition had created unkind and aggressive working conditions. To ease this problem, Wellcome recently launched a campaign, Reimagine Research Culture, aiming to raise awareness about the issue and to foster local, grassroots discussion across UK research institutes through a so-called 'Café Culture'. Hopefully, initiatives like Café Culture will help raise awareness of this growing issue, and empower people to speak up.

Be it through changing reporting policies or research culture itself, the widespread problem of toxic academic practices is slowly being tackled. With a problem of such overwhelming scale, it can be difficult to even begin to think about how to improve the situation. Even with new initiatives in place, we must all do our best to push for systemic changes to research culture and university misconduct reporting systems. The bright young minds walking into our universities deserve better.

This opinion piece was written by PhD students at several different universities, who wish to remain anonymous. This article was commissioned by Alex Bates and Laia Serratosa Capdevila. Artwork by Mariadaria Ianni-Ravn