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Competitiveness is pushing scientists to the edge

In response to the opinion article by Leopoldo de Meis and others, Impact factors in Brazil: part of a research treadmill, it has become clear that the pressures arising from current practices in the scientific community can have a damaging impact on the health of researchers.

Much of the recent debate on this was triggered by the suicide in 1998 of a postgraduate chemistry student in Harvard. Many commentators at the time and subsequently have asked whether this was likely to be an isolated case. Unfortunately the answer seems to have been no. Indeed, even at Harvard several other cases had been reported.

A news article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education at the time stated: "For every PhD candidate who kills himself, there are hundreds who become clinically depressed, drop out, or grimly endure bad situations in silence." The article continued: "Many students work seven days a week until the wee hours of the morning. Their vacations are few; their outside activities nil. Working 70 hours a week or more turns the lab into your life, students say. And when your science turns sour, there's nothing to fall back on."

The article quotes one graduate student as saying: "People would brag, 'I slept in the group room last night because I was working so hard'. There's a mindset that if you leave the lab at 6 pm, it means that your project is not the most important thing in your life"

Although this takes place in a different setting - the article by De Meis et al refers primarily to Brazil - the accounts are very similar. This suggests that there is a certain homogeneity in scientific practice at a global level. We see across the world not only an increase in the rate of production of scientific knowledge, but also the many forms of suffering that this can lead to.

Both economic globalisation and the shortage in government funding for science have - intentionally - led to increased competitiveness. This state of affairs is made worse by the fact that an increase in productivity is closely linked with the increased use of postgraduate students and postdocs in many countries.

The pressures created by this increased competitiveness can be seen both in the insecurity felt by many contract researchers, and in the increase in the number of postdoc associations seeking to protect their rights as individuals. Science has become a precarious activity, with increased flexibility being built into contracts of employment, long training periods, and instability of recognised researchers that have a stable position in the research field. Perhaps it is time to ask: is that the type of science we want?