Sustainable Careers Paths Will Mean Better Research Outcomes and a Better UC

In the last year, billions of dollars have been invested in research efforts in the U.S — nearly $6 billion at the University of California alone. The stakes are high because the problems we are looking to solve are complex. In my lab at UC San Francisco, I am researching adult stem cells in a Drosophila (fruit fly) ovarian tissue, a project with broad applications that could deliver new therapies for treating cancer and a host of other pathologies.

But throughout my time at UC, it has become clear to me that the way the University treats researchers is inefficient and ultimately unsustainable — and that the research suffers as a result. We face inequitable pay, a lack of opportunities for career advancement and recognition, little support for those pursuing independent research careers, and zero parental leave or meaningful protections against harassment and discrimination. In sum, UC has failed to create a viable career path for researchers and thus does not allow us to make our best contributions.

That is why last year, 5,000 UC Academic Researchers (ARs) — Project Scientists, Specialists, Researchers, and Coordinators of Public Programs — (including me) came together to form our union, Academic Researchers United / UAW 5810. We will begin bargaining our first contract this week. Our goal is to remedy inequity and inefficiency within the research system at UC, thus improving the quality of the research it yields and setting an example for institutions nationwide.

To illustrate, I’ll share my own story. As a young person growing up in Cote D’Ivoire, I knew I wanted to come to the United States — but a career in a STEM field was far from my mind. My family sacrificed much to help me get here, and to keep me housed and fed when I arrived alone in 2008. But it was worth it. I attended Laney Community College in Oakland, and then transferred to UC Merced, becoming the first person in my family to earn an advanced degree in a STEM field.

A scholarship program for minority students exposed me to research as a career. I had always been interested in the “why” behind things and now I had a practical outlet for my natural curiosity — I was hooked. After hearing my professor speak at a seminar, I made it my goal to work with him, and after graduating I was hired in his lab at UCSF. My salary was about $32,000 a year after taxes.

I was lucky to find a room to rent in a house in Oakland. Every morning I woke up early to take a bus to BART, BART to Muni, and then another bus to my lab at UCSF’s Parnassus campus. I would arrive at 9am and work until five — and then commute back to Berkeley, where I started my shift at a falafel restaurant. I worked until midnight, when I would close up the shop and do the nightly cleaning for about two hours. I would then take an Uber home — a luxury for sure, but at 2am it also felt like a necessity — and get ready to do it all again. Most weekend nights I was back in the lab, making up for lost time. On average, I was working about 80 hours a week.

It didn’t take long for me to realize these conditions were unsustainable. It should go without saying that economic stability is essential to physical and emotional well-being and by extension is critical to performing good research. As I spoke with my colleagues, we realized that although our challenges were not the same, we were all coming up against institutional conditions that pushed us out or held us back, damaging both our careers and UC’s research mission.

Several researchers more senior than myself were contemplating leaving UC altogether — with no paid parental leave, and because they did not make enough to pay for private childcare, they were out of options. Their experience is not unique and has translated into a measurable gender gap at UC: in STEM fields women earn 46% of the bachelor’s degrees, but occupy only 25% of the tenure-track faculty positions.

Other colleagues struggle with extreme job insecurity. Delays or short gaps in their funding leaves them without a paycheck for extended periods of time, derailing their work and throwing their lives into financial chaos. Others are forced to string together appointments and projects in a way that makes every day precarious. This is in spite of the fact that multiple studies have shown that researchers are more productive when they are paid fairly, have job security and are supported in their careers.

And a shocking number of people in academia are dealing with persistent discrimination and harassment, often from supervisors. According to a report released last July by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 58% of academic employees indicated they had experienced harassment — which ranks academia second only to the U.S. military in terms of incidence rates. Researchers facing harassment have worse physical and mental health, higher rates of disengagement from work, and more often leave the field altogether.

Currently, Academic Researchers at UC have limited protections or recourse against predatory supervisors. Often you are faced with a painful binary; say nothing, and continue to work alongside your abuser, or take on the entire UC system, with its lawyers and PR teams and financial reserves, as one employee. While I am fortunate to work with a supportive professor, this is unquestionably a long-running systemic crisis that must be addressed. Just as UC Postdocs have done, ARs have the power to bargain for strong prevention and protection measures, policies that are also in the best interest of the institution.

Remedying these institutional obstacles through a union contract will make the system more sustainable, allowing ARs to work and thrive in ways that are not presently possible. Working conditions that reflect the undeniable value of our contributions to UC’s research mission will help reshape the face of research at UC and beyond. Among the benefits will be:

  • A fair, more gender-equal academy that benefits from the contributions of more than half the population, who at this point are routinely pushed out.
  • More breakthroughs because people have time to learn and focus and think, without the immediate threat of losing their job or funding.
  • Better mentorship as longer-term relationships and supports are established.
  • A level playing field where the best minds and the best ideas compete, and where participation is not gentrified.
  • Better science that is developed over decades, not months.

Over the course of our negotiations, I am hopeful that we can craft a contract that gives Academic Researchers more options and makes UC’s research enterprise more sustainable. The problems we are working on are too important, and the level of investment is too high to continue down the path we are on now.

Jocelyne Fadiga is a Specialist in the Anatomy Department and Center for Reproductive Sciences at UC San Francisco, and an Academic Researchers United / UAW 5810 bargaining team member. Learn more: http://academicresearchersunited.org/, https://twitter.com/ARs_United, https://www.facebook.com/AcademicResearchersUnited/