Credit: audrey sel

Science’s Dirty Little Secret

Not all lab rats are the furry kind

Many years ago, I watched a friend’s science career destroyed by a man. She was a young PhD researcher, he was her supervisor. He had a reputation for being an aggressive but talented scientist. He also had a reputation for harassing his female researchers. During her time as a research student, his marriage hit the rocks, and he took an interest in her — one that wasn’t reciprocated. Her friend, another of his students, was bullied into keeping silent on the issue. Eventually, things degraded to the point that they filed a joint harassment complaint against their supervisor.

The pair fought an uphill battle every step of the way. They were told by the heads of department not to discuss the complaint publicly in any way. They instructed to stay away from the lab until the complaint was dealt with. They had to wait at home, watching their research stipend bleed away, watching their work fall behind. It took six months to arrange a hearing. According to institutional policy, complaints of this nature had to be dealt with within a few weeks. The heads contained their complaint as an internal departmental issue, side-stepping this protocol. When the day came, the two young women had to sit next to their ex-supervisor, in a room with his colleagues, and recite their misgivings. He was reprimanded, they were assigned a new supervisor, and they were told to return to work in the same laboratory as their harasser. By this point, my friend had already decided to leave. She moved away and restarted her academic career in a different city. Her friend persevered. She had to redo her entire PhD, only completing it by incurring masses of credit card debt after what was left of her funding ran out. I asked them once what advice they had for any woman in a similar position, who was thinking of filing a complaint against her supervisor. They replied in unison: “Don’t.”

Why write about this now? Last week, playwright and science writer Monica Byrne posted an essay about her own experience with harassment, later naming Bora Zivkovic as the man responsible. As Scientific American’s Blog Editor and co-creator of Science Online, he’s a giant in his field, and Byrne had bitten her tongue over the incident specifically because he had the power to sink her chances of writing for the publisher. So, the narrative repeats itself.

Then as much as now, I don’t know what do about this. My focus is on academia, and the problem is not that some men abuse positions of power. Sadly this happens in all walks of life. The problem is that the entire system is designed in a way that makes this abuse easy. Easy to carry out, and easy to get away with. The doctoral system — what should be a training scheme for new scientists — is often caricatured as a serfdom. Young researchers work long hours for laughable pay. Often they are not employed by the university, nor do their enjoy the protections of employees. These PhD researchers can’t, for example, sue for constructive dismissal, nor take their case to an industrial tribunal.

These eminently vulnerable people are then placed in the custodianship of superiors who personally wield an incredible amount of power over their future. Research fields are so specialised that there might be only a few labs in the country you can go on to work at. In that small community, it does not take much to derail a young scientist’s career.

If this was not enough, PhD students are utterly replaceable compared to a tenured professor or head of department. They aren’t even on the payroll. It is easier for an institution to ride roughshod over a student’s interests, ignore their complaints or even encourage them to leave than it is to discipline a member of the department. For people that pride themselves on being smart, academics and scientists have created a system of employment which facilitates sexual harassment and abuse.

When I raise this issue with the female scientists I know, every one of them has a story like this, either one they experienced directly, or the experiences of their colleagues. You won’t see discussion of these challenges, these risks, in any glossy graduate brochure though. That’s science’s dirty little secret. Of course, it might not happen to you, but if it does, know that there’s probably very little you’ll be able to do about it except put up or pack up.

So again, I wonder what I can do. Some time ago, I bought the domain lab-rats.co.uk. I thought that maybe if people could share their experiences, they could find support with one another. They could even flag certain problem individuals, warn others away from them, pressure institutions to take action. I still think it could work, if heavily moderated. These discussions are easily holed by libel suits and defamation claims, and false accusations would be equally damaging to the site and to the person targeted. But if someone wanted to help make Lab Rats happen, I’m still open to the idea.

In the meantime, after several years, I’m finally telling this story. I guess that’s my contribution. I don’t expect it will shake academia to the core and instigate new, robust systems that protect the interests of young women and men whose only crime is an ambition to be a scientist. But sharing this story is one tiny step toward a common goal of progress, and after all, isn’t that what science is about?