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Scientists Work Too Much – Is this Bad for Science?

In my time in the lab, I came across people with lots of different work ethics. The lazy scientists, the let-everybody-else-do-all-the-hard-work-for-me scientists, the strictly-nine-to-five scientists, the nocturnal scientists, the always-on-holiday scientists and, of course, the workaholic scientists.

Science is no easy trade. It’s time consuming, and the pressure to get results can be huge. It’s no wonder that some of us work late. I knew people who would stay in the lab for days on end to monitor experiments with specific time intervals, and sleep in the break room. You may argue that they’re dedicated (and obviously you’d have to be, to make that kind of commitment), but I sometimes think the constant hours scientists like that put in can damage the research community.

I’m a prime example. While I can’t remember ever having to pull an all-nighter (and certainly no stints that lasted days on end) I did work harder during my PhD than I ever had in my life . It’s easy in that sort of environment, especially when everybody else has gone home, in the silence of the empty lab with little natural light, to be left alone with thoughts (which may or may not be somewhat scrambled from way too much caffeine) that easily spiral into a horrible mess of fear and chaos and stress. Without the distraction of human company, I found it difficult to focus on anything but my work, and it became the ruling influence in my life… and not in a good way. If anything went wrong, it felt like the world was ending. If something went right, there was no celebration: I just got on with the next thing and waited for that to go wrong time after time too. In the end it got me too down, and I was glad to be well rid of the lab. By the end of my PhD, I didn’t want anything to do with research ever again. Consequently, I’m now in healthcare marketing (which I’m enjoying much more, if you were wondering). Obviously I’m one person, and not everyone would react the way I did (although I met plenty of miserable people in my three years in the lab) – if everybody who felt like I did left the lab, there’d be a lot fewer academic scientists out there doing post-docs.

But at the same time, I’m by no means the only scientist in the world to overwork. A recently published article highlighted a study which looked into how much scientists work by monitoring scientific paper downloads from Springer. Results showed that researchers in the US were downloading between 100 and 300 papers every ten minutes between midnight and sunrise (compared to roughly 700 in the late afternoon period). American scientists aren’t the only guilty ones, though: Chinese and German researchers worked through the night too (although at a much lower rate).

You’d think that such a degree of overwork would push people away from science. However, despite this, many scientists seem to be generally happy people: a survey published in Nature found that 63% of women and 67% of men were generally happy with their circumstances (clearly I would have been in the remaining 30-ish per cent!). Separate studies in Scientific American also show though that, if given an indefinite amount of time, researchers would spend up to a million years studying much broader, and perhaps more “fun”, questions than they often do in the labs, among them:

  • How did life begin?
  • How smart can chimps become?
  • How do massive stars blow up?
  • Will humans evolve resistance to major diseases?

Obviously, these are intriguing questions, but not always immediately useful in our day and age. However, they are somewhat fundamental questions about our existence, and in a world which is rapidly becoming more populated, in which the strain on finite resources is getting ever tighter, these questions may mean more important things for the future than we realize now. But, as the study mentioned above shows (and no doubt, all our collective experiences would suggest), we simply don’t have the time or funding to investigate them. We need to focus on results that are going to be important and competitive now: not in the years beyond our lifetimes. It is sadly a fact of science these days that funding is easiest to come by if you’re answering pertinent questions, and you’re answering them faster and better than your competing labs.

Clearly, there are implications here for science as a whole. Between scientists working too hard and abandoning the lab, and scientists working too hard and not getting to focus on their ideal questions… where are we going? Will the science of the future suffer because of this? Will there be fewer people in science? Are we asking the wrong questions and neglecting our future? Or will the competitive nature of funding and science drive us all to produce better research that’s relevant to humanity more quickly?

What do you think? Is all our working going to damage science? Or do you think it will be better off for it?

1 Comment

  1. Vicki Doronina on November 24, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    >Or will the competitive nature of funding and science drive us all to >produce better research that’s relevant to humanity more quickly?

    There is already an answer this question – faster doesn’t mean better, but worse: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/28/us-science-cancer-idUSBRE82R12P20120328

    Neglecting fundamental science will inevitably lead to further decline in quality of research and people doing it.

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