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Published On May 27, 2020

POLICY

Bullies on Notice

Toxic work environments are bad for science. Morteza Mahmoudi is on a crusade to clean them up.

The journey through scientific training can hang, at certain moments, on the goodwill of a single professor or principal investigator. What happens when that person treats you inhumanely? Bullying in academic environments has come under much greater focus in recent years, with high-profile cases coming to light in the United States and Europe.

Morteza Mahmoudi, a nanoscientist at Michigan State University, has become a vocal advocate for the victims of this largely hidden problem. Last year he helped launch the Academic Parity Movement, a nonprofit that aims to outline the costs of academic bullying and show ways to help root it out.

Q: What is academic bullying?

A: Some of it is the same kind of bad behavior you find in any other profession. Say a young post-doc is made fun of in group meetings or is privately berated by her superior. That is clearly recognizable. But in higher education, bullying can take other forms. Let’s say that post-doc led a project for three years, but her boss felt that he should really get the entire credit. Her name might be buried in a list of authors on a paper or taken off altogether. She might be pressured not to speak at conferences, or to sign away patent rights to a discovery. All of these things have happened, and they are devastating to the mental health and careers of these young researchers.

Q: How extensive is academic bullying in clinical medicine?

A: A recent paper in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that 30% of residents experienced verbal or physical abuse. I should note that there has historically been a lack of data for any of this kind of behavior, driven in part by fear from bullying targets. One study asked them how many trusted their institutions enough to report an incident. The answer was 2%.

Q: What is behind that lack of trust?

A: There are several reasons, including a fear of retaliation. This might take the shape of a bad recommendation for a future job. It can also be the fear of an unfair internal investigation. For international students, visa cancellation is another major worry. Without protocols in place, or an independent board that can evaluate these situations, there is nowhere for the target to turn, and that encourages silence.

Q: What are the consequences for medicine?

A: Studies have found that bullying is extremely costly both for the scientific community and the public. The authors of that NEJM study found that bullying made those residents more likely to experience burnout and suicidal thoughts. We know from multiple studies that burnout has adverse effects on patient care and increases the risk of errors.

Q: Are there solutions to these problems?

A: Yes, we’ve started to see more sweeping responses. In 2018 the Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom decided to yank a major £3.5 million grant from a famous genetics professor. She had resigned from her position following an independent investigation into her bullying behavior. Wellcome also barred her from applying for further grants for two years. It was the first test of a pioneering anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy the charity had just instituted.

Q: And are academic institutions following suit?

A: Many are trying their best. Here at Michigan State, we are working to create a dedicated budget to help with these issues and to enhance the efficacy of offices of academic bullying. We need to increase awareness and simplify reporting. But what we really need is integrated collaboration among all the stakeholders and to look for permanent solutions. Institutions and funding agencies should share data about problematic principal investigators. A center for excellence in higher education should be created and establish a very clear definition of academic bullying, and this should be shared with all staff, including PIs.

Q: What is your aim with the Academic Parity website?

A: Today, we are using it to create awareness and collect stories. We have received more than 150 so far. Many are heartbreaking. The long-term goal is to create a community with lawyers and psychiatrists to help people who are targets. We are also running a global survey to help identify trends. I think this work helps all of us, even the perpetrators. One thing we keep in mind is that the academic bullies among us may not be aware of the consequences of their actions for targets, for patients, for academic institutions and even for science. If they knew, surely they would change.

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