June 29, 2023 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

To achieve scientific advances that improve public health, we need a diverse and well-trained scientific workforce. The Supreme Court decision striking down race-conscious college admissions is a blow to efforts to ensure equitable access to scientific education. But even in places where colleges have used race-conscious admissions, inadequate support and inhospitable work environments are driving many promising scientists from their career paths. Some promising initiatives to improve working conditions are underway, and large-scale change is necessary.

Harassment Abounds and Mental Health Suffers

“There is a mental health crisis in science,” writes Shannon Hall for Nature. Teresa Evans, who directed biomedical career development at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and colleagues surveyed thousands of graduate students and found rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms to be more than six times those of the general population. Higher proportions of trans/gender-nonconforming respondents and women (compared to men) reported anxiety and depressive symptoms.

One factor that likely contributes to poorer mental health for women and trans people in academia is sexual harassment. After anthropologist Kathryn Clancy of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues documented high rates of sexual harassment in field science and astronomy and planetary science– and found women of color experiencing the highest rates of both harassment and assault – the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine studied the problem broadly. Their 2018 report concludes that “that the cumulative result of sexual harassment in academic sciences, engineering, and medicine is significant damage to research integrity and a costly loss of talent in these fields.”

Those reports focused on harassment of scientists by other academics, but in recent years scientists have also faced growing hostility from certain segments of the population. Climate scientists have long faced threats and abuse from those who seek to protect their profits or boost their political fortunes, and in recent years scientists contributing to COVID-19 responses have faced similar attacks. Harassers have made threats against scientists’ family members, and vaccine expert Peter Hotez has faced stalking by anti-vaccine harassers. A survey of federal scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that respondents from CDC, which has played a major role in pandemic response, reported a higher rate of harassment than scientists from other agencies.

Harassment can also come from elected officials. As part of a larger campaign to dramatically alter education, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned colleges’ efforts to promote diversity and equity and stacked the board of one college with appointees who then denied tenure to scientists specializing in organic chemistry and marine science. Academics who study disinformation on topics like vaccines and elections are facing pressure from House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has demanded correspondence records from several universities and threatened legal action against Stanford University for not complying fully. The committee has interviewed professors who Jordan suggests — without any convincing evidence — are suppressing conservative speech, and such attention only exacerbates the online abuse these experts already face.

“[R]esearchers say that records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits have become tools of harassment,” write Naomi Nix and Joseph Menn in the Washington Post. “The fear of being targeted is profound enough that several researchers spoke on the condition that they not be named, and one prominent professor asked to be removed from the story entirely, citing concerns about his family’s safety.” Our need for disinformation insight has never been greater, but harassment is driving some experts to cut back on public engagement or avoid the topic in the first place.

Insufficient Support Hampers Diversity

In a special report for STAT News, Jonathan Wosen examines the precarious position of postdoctoral fellows, whose short-term academic jobs following completion of a doctoral degree have long been seen as a reliable route to a faculty position. Postdoc positions typically involve demanding hours for low pay, but only certain segments of the population can afford to make the necessary sacrifices in exchange for a (potential) career boost. Wosen describes findings from a national survey of new PhD graduates:

For instance, in 2021, roughly 42% of Ph.D. graduates with children planned to do a postdoc compared to 64% of non-parents. And graduates’ chances of continuing on to a postdoc steadily drop from 61% to 39% as their level of debt increases.

Prospective postdocs also tend to be younger and are less likely to be Black or female. While 59% of all life science Ph.D. graduates in 2021 said they’d pursue a postdoc, that drops to 44% among Black graduates. Similarly, 62% of male Ph.D.s that year planned to continue on to a postdoc compared to 56% of female graduates.

Universities have been working to increase faculty diversity, so it’s counterproductive for them to make one traditional avenue toward a faculty position unworkable for those who could contribute to that goal. Postdocs are typically funded through grants, and raising postdoc salaries and benefits (particularly family health benefits and childcare) is most likely to occur if federal funding agencies increase grant amounts and alter their policies. Without such a boost, the academic path will remain less welcoming to historically excluded groups.

For those who do make it through postdoc programs, the struggle isn’t over. Women and members of historically excluded groups face many obstacles to obtaining academic jobs, getting the research grants necessary to support their work, and receiving promotions within academia. Multi-faceted support will be necessary to level the playing field at these career stages.

Shifting Policies and Power

Growing concerns about the postdoc pipeline spurred the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create a Working Group on Re-envisioning NIH-Supported Postdoctoral Training. After a series of listening sessions, the working group identified three areas for improvement. To address financial strain, “participants called for salaries commensurate with their level of education and expertise, employee benefits, and improved childcare support through subsidies or supplements.” To improve career development, they called for training and financial support to ease transitions into both tenure-track and non-tenure-track roles, as well as positions outside academia. Because a power imbalance leaves postdocs – particularly those from historically excluded groups and those who need visas to work in the US – vulnerable to abuse, participants called for “better accountability and oversight of employing institutions and mentors.”

One specific working group recommendation to address power imbalances is for institutions to “remain neutral if postdocs want to establish unions or take other actions to protect their rights.” Unions can help protect members from abuse as well as negotiating for higher pay and benefits. UAW local unions at multiple universities have made news in recent years by winning more compensation for their members. In 2020, the first union contract with a private university saw Columbia postdocs receive a minimum of $60,000 per year. At the end of 2022, postdocs and other academic researchers ratified a historic union contract with University of California, ending a month-long strike by around 48,000 workers and achieving substantial pay increases plus eight weeks of paid family and parental leave. Research fellows at NIH itself filed a petition for a union earlier this month.

Agencies that fund academic research can support higher postdoc salaries by increasing grant amounts, though that’s hard when Congress fails to increase agency funding. Strengthening policies for grantees can also help. For instance, in recent years NIH has provided new opportunities for grantees to apply for funds for parental leave and childcare costs as well as flexibility in timelines and eligibility to account for absences or altered schedules related to family responsibilities.

In addition, agencies have been making changes in response to reports of abuses by principal investigators (PIs; the individual faculty members who lead grant-funded projects). For instance, in 2018 NIH followed up on sexual harassment-related concerns at more than two dozen institutions, and its involvement resulted in the replacement of 14 PIs of NIH grants. NIH has long required that institutions assure their compliance with civil rights protections, and under Congressional direction it recently added a requirement that institutions inform NIH when PIs or other key personnel who receive NIH grant funding are removed from their positions or otherwise disciplined “due to concerns about harassment, bullying, retaliation or hostile working conditions.” NIH will then coordinate with the institution on corrective action, which can include finding a replacement PI.

Recommendations for Universities

In a commentary in the journal Cell entitled “Juneteenth in STEMM and the barriers to equitable science,” Alfred Mays of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and 51 other Black scientists provide “institutional-level solutions to reduce the burdens on Black scientists.” To foster a culture of inclusivity and support, they advise providing sponsorship and support opportunities while addressing discriminatory practices and creating organizations to allow for tailored mentorship and a sense of community. To improve mental health, their recommendations include strengthening access to mental health resources, encouraging open discussion about mental health, and ensuring that mentorship “considers not only students’ scientific pursuits but also their daily challenges and real-life issues.” For better work-life integration, they recommend not only the kinds of steps that forward-thinking employers are already taking – flexible work arrangements, vacation time, and supportive policies for parental leave – but recognition of the “diversity taxes” that leave Black scientists with outsized shares of unpaid activities such as mentoring other underrepresented trainees.

May and colleagues also challenge institutions to eliminate microagressions, promote diversity in hiring practices, and ensure that their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices are well-funded and empowered to carry out their objectives. They emphasize the need to “break down barriers that prevent Black students from participating in research” and focus retention efforts on faculty members as well as early-career students. Given NIH’s disappointing track record for funding Black scientists, they recommend restructuring current systems for awarding grants – not just increasing the diversity of the peer review boards that recommend grant allocation, but creating new mechanisms for funding the kinds of research often proposed by Black scientists. And they highlight the need to support Black women in science specifically.

Overcoming the barriers that exist because of historic and ongoing discrimination will require substantial time and money — and will generate substantial returns. Diverse groups of researchers are better positioned to generate the kind of high-impact work we need to tackle the many public health problems we face. The Supreme Court’s recent decision puts more obstacles in the way, but progress is still possible. Let’s make sure our institutions and funding agencies commit to making the necessary investments.

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