Science’s Bullying Problem

By Neuroskeptic | August 19, 2018 10:45 am

Over the past few weeks, the stories of three high-profile scientists accused of bullying have emerged: geneticist Nazneen Rahman, psychologist Tania Singer and astrophysicist Guinevere Kauffmann.


Each of these researchers are (or were) at the top of their fields, recipients of huge amounts of funding. They are accused of abuses of power, bullying and abuse of their subordinates and creating a climate of fear in their institutions.

It would be easy to look to the personal characteristics of these three scientists to understand what’s going on. For instance, all three are women, and two (Singer and Kauffmann) are directors of Max Planck Institutes (MPIs), highly prestigious research organizations which offer directors a greater degree of independence compared to a traditional university post.

However, in this post, I’m going to suggest that to understand how cases such as these come about, we might need to look to the nature of academic science as a whole. While stories involving mega-scientists and MPI directors are the ones that make the headlines, the problem goes deeper. I’ve seen it myself and heard plenty of stories.

I don’t have all of the answers by any means, but here are some thoughts on three factors that, in my opinion, can create conditions favorable for bullying in science.

Idealism. Most people working in science are highly motivated to be there, and not for financial reasons. They want to work in science because they love science or at least because they believe in what they’re doing. This idealism is, of course, in many ways a good thing. However, I suspect that it can make scientists, who are victims of abuse, less likely to protest.

If you truly believe in the work that you are doing, guided by your supervisor/boss/director, you are more likely to overlook their personal faults. Related to this is the romantic image of the ‘genius scientist’ as an unworldly and socially inaccessible figure which, again I think, operates to make people more forgiving of behaviour that in a normal employer-employee relationship wouldn’t be acceptable.

Promotion. I have often heard it said that senior scientists tend to lack management skills because “they’re not promotedĀ  for their management ability”. In other words, the problem supposedly is that we promote brilliant scientists, not brilliant managers, to management positions in science. I think this account is rather simplistic, though.

To become a senior scientist you do need management skills. At every level, scientists are judged on their scientific output but past the middle of your career, your scientific output is largely produced by your subordinates – PhD students and postdocs. Mid-career scientists, no matter how brilliant, also need to manage.

In my view the real problem with the promotion system is that when scientists reach mid-career, they suddenly have to manage people, something they have never done and never really been trained to do (brief training courses notwithstanding). At the same time as learning to manage, these mid-career researchers also have to produce ever more papers. In many cases, I think these new manager/scientists fall back on the only thing they know – hard work, which is what got them to this point. The danger is that ‘hard work’ becomes the entirety of their management philosophy.

Prestige. In science, the senior figures have a lot of authority over their subordinates (especially at MPIs). But these senior figures also have enormous prestige – they are widely felt to deserve their authority, on account of their brilliant accomplishments. In other words, they have both ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’. This makes them powerful indeed and makes blowing the whistle on them doubly daunting.

There is also a belief – how true, I’m not sure – that only a small proportion of scientists are cut out for senior positions. Those that do well, primarily in terms of bringing in grant money, are given great freedom (by universities especially) because there is a sense that such superstars would be hard to replace.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ethics, science, select, Top Posts
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  • radicalrepublican

    Not to mention the fraudulent research results that subordinates are bullied into agreeing to.

    • Daniel Issaks

      Right on

    • HenryC

      Much of the bullying comes from true belief in their ideas without sufficient facts. Facts disagreeing are thrown out because they can’t be true, etc.

      • radicalrepublican

        I agree. Anecdote: my brother is an MD, worked in lab of famous doctor. Famous doctor bullied him, pressured him to fabricate results when the desired results did not happen. Yikes.

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  • KEK on da table

    There is a simple answer: Reward scientists not managers. A scientist is one working in a lab producing data, a manager works behind the desk and goes to meetings. In other words, the scientist should be paid what is currently a manger’s salary and a lab manager should be paid a lab worker’s wage. This simple change in paradigm would likely have the effect of eliminating waste, increasing production and result in an improvement of the quality of science produced. The goal of science is produce great scientists capable of sheding light on the truth, not glorified secretaries with greedy compulsion for money.

    • Louise Sumrell

      Don’t hold your breath…

  • OWilson

    Management and Administration are professions in themselves. They require people skills, morale building, human problem solving, effective budget management and organizational abilities.

    It is a rare individual who posses both the talent for their particular discipline and the experience necessary to successfully lead a diverse group of lower level staff.

  • vaccinia

    If you’re good enough, stand up for yourself. If you are not, you are better off getting out anyway…..

    • bd3517

      Research on effective teams shows your opinion the opposite of true. Toxic environments benefit people who like throwing elbows to the detriment of everyone else and results in poorer work.

      • vaccinia

        There is only ONE way to eliminate a toxic environment, and that is make sure you (and preferably everyone else) shuns it. THEN, it will cease to have the power to be toxic. If you merely capitulate, you lose AND the status quo stays intact. You sound like some college kid whose academic ideas work in every classroom in the country….and nowhere in reality.

    • ddsouza

      Idealistic nonsense. In my field, early career researchers are dependent on a small number of people at the top, no matter how smart they are. There are no indispensable Isaac Newtons in my field. Maybe it’s different in other disciplines. Maybe in physics, for example, individuals are more important than teams and collaborations. But in my field, I see a lot of injustice, and early career researchers have very few options. I know of a great PhD student (the driving force in our team) who found it difficult to stand up for herself (people do PhDs to do science not fight with their “superiors”), so she quit her PhD at a world class institution. Most people would grit their teeth and survive – but we shouldn’t have to… and she says she has no stress and thus no regrets.

      • vaccinia

        You mean reality…..only complete idiots toss productive grad students. And then, as I mentioned, you are better off getting out of that lab OR getting out of science. “You ahouldn’t have to”, get a grip…welcome to the real world!

        • ddsouza

          “Only complete idiots toss productive grad students” Yup, productive grad students are regularly driven out by complete idiots in my experience. But, sadly, sometimes it’s better to grin and bear it until you get a chance to move. If there were plenty of opportunities and plenty of non-idiots, then you would of course be right. The problem is that (in my discipline), you can’t just leave your job because your boss is a bully; it will affect your career.

          • vaccinia

            If you grin and bear it, then Change won’t–and doesn’t– occur…..

            And it never will, if you don’t stand up for yourself. Not saying there won’t be consequences, but if there are….make sure you get the pound of flesh that makes the idiot think twice next time and change their behavior the one after that. Think Pavlov…..

          • ddsouza

            I meant that early career researchers can’t simply stand up for themselves if they really care about their careers – they need to (1) make it into a position of power, (2) not forget what the journey was like, and (3) have enough compassion to change the lab culture and help the next generation of researchers. There are other things they can do, of course. The details of when to ‘grin and bear it’ and when to rock the boat are clearly *context-dependent*. That, for me, is realism.
            In any case, I don’t think this conversation is going anywhere, so I’m gonna leave it…

          • vaccinia

            Sounds defeatist to me…Good luck! You’re going to need it….

        • ddsouza

          “get a grip…welcome to the real world!”
          This feels defeatist to me. I was merely stating the reality (which often sucks). But I was also implying that it doesn’t have to be that way. Change can–and does!–occur. That’s the whole point of posts like these. They hopefully spark (some) people into action, which helps to change the culture. This, to me, is the most important thing: changing the culture (so fewer good people leave science and the ones that remain live in a collaborative environment focused on scientific curiosity and discovery and innovation, not on egos).

          • vaccinia

            The top end of science is too competitive for this type of dream world….I hate to burst your bubble on this but a$$holes almost exclusively drive discovery and CERTAINLY innovation. Edison, Rockefeller, Ford, Jobs, Musk ring a bell…..

  • polistra24

    This isn’t a problem with science, it’s a problem with all of academia. Tenure has led to an atmosphere of SUPERcompetition. You’re not going to break the problem until you remove tenure and grants from academia.

    • neoritter

      No, restore the non-tenured professor. Nowadays you’re either tenured or you’re a part-time teacher.

    • DavidT

      “Tenure has led to an atmosphere of SUPERcompetition.”

      I understand your comment in two ways, neither of which seems to me valid.

      First, in most of the universities that I know well, there is no competition for tenure: you get hired on a tenure track, the criteria are made explicit to you, and if you meet or exceed the criteria, you get tenure. That’s simplified, of course, but you’re not competing with two or three other untenured people for one tenured slot.

      Second, the criteria for tenure in STEM departments include publications and grants that are indeed competitive. But even keeping your job without tenure would require the same publications and grants, and thus the same levels of competition, no?

      I’d argue that it is indeed science that is competitive, with or without tenure, with or without grants. You don’t see this level of competitiveness in humanities, where there is tenure, but where grants are vanishingly rare.

  • Israel C. Kalman

    For a different perspective on this phenomenon, please read my article in Psychology Today:

    • Assistant Village idiot

      You make good points, including a few things that need to be heard about the supposed unfashionableness of bullying – and yet it persists! But your last bullet point is unfair, and you keep repeating it. 46% saying workplace relationships are worse under Trump does not mean there is even a 1% increase in bullying (and you imply that it is all one direction!). People are more unhappy, they may be arguing more. They may be more offended that people don’t agree with them. Plenty of respondents are likely to answer in the affirmative because they believe everything must be worse under Trump. I am have been a psychiatric social worker for decades and am very clear how intolerant the tolerant people are. I have seen no pro-Trump bullying at the hospital, but plenty of public sneering and silencing by the anti-Trumps. That is merely a subset of the treatment of conservatives for my entire career. You even note the phenomenon that people always think it is the other guy who is the bully, yet you have a single public example, repeated.

      • Israel C. Kalman

        I love your online name!

        I accept what you are saying. Yes, the tolerance people can be quite intolerant!

        Please forgive me if I only mention Trump as a public figure. It’s just very convenient because he gets referred to as bully more than anyone in the world. And you may be right that it is a one-direction phenomenon.

        But he’s not the main concern of my article, so excuse me if I leave it the way it is. I hope my main points get across to readers.

        • Assistant Village idiot

          Fair enough! Come out for beer night if you are ever in NH (my blog is the same name and that will give you enough clues to find me). I am only this irritable online.

          • Israel C. Kalman

            Thanks for the invite! Greatly appreciated. I should look up your blog.

  • MAX PLANCK Research

    The system behind the Max Planck Institutes is the problem. The Max Planck Society promotes such behavior through the protection of the directors. For more information, please click here (please use the google translate button):

    • Neuroskeptic

      This may be true, but there is also bullying outside MPIs too

  • Just call me Joe

    Want to talk about bullying in science?

    Nothing compares to the bullying by some climate scientists to shut down and ruin someone who dares ask a question against dogma.

    • DavidT

      How do you account for the professional and academic success of scientists who have questioned what you call the “dogma” of climate science?

      • Assistant Village idiot


        • DavidT

          Freeman Dyson
          Ivar Giaever
          Will Happer
          Patrick Michaels
          Bjorn Lomborg

          And others — check out Michael Mann’s book for a discussion of many individuals. Some, like Willie Soon, got a black eye, but he’s still pretty successful.

          On the other hand, if you have to ask for examples, does this suggest something else to you?

          • Just call me Joe

            You found five out of how many thousands?

            Dyson’s success was achieved before he challenged the global warming scandal.

            Lomborg has been largely pushed aside.

          • DavidT

            Fine. You expected me to name every professional successful climate skeptic??? Get real and do a little homework yourself.

            Dyson continues to be one of the world’s foremost scientists. Judith Curry is still an active, successful academic climatologist — if you want to move the goalpost for your issue, ok, but my impression (I’m a physician, a cardiologist, not a climate scientist) is that the relatively small number of scientists who are skeptical of climate change orthodoxy continue to do research, continue to publish, etc. Richard Muller at Berkeley didn’t seem to suffer when he was a skeptic, since his research was good.

            Again, you’re not responding to the question I raised, after several comments that are largely irrelevant, so I’ll get back to work and ignore this issue.

          • Just call me Joe

            My impression, as an advanced degreed engineer with expertise in thermodynamics, computational fluid dynamics, and multidisciplinary engineering software development (from which I have made a boatload of money) is that the majority of people actually doing the work are well aware of its shortcomings, but that the people in charge are political activists who refuse to consider alternatives and limitations.

            There are political activists masquerading as scientists. They are frauds.

            The bottom line is that the climate models fail to accurately predict the climate. That means they are WRONG.

            What they SHOULD do is go back and change the model (, and many of the low level people are aware of this. But the activists go back and change the data to better fit the model. That is fraud. If I had tried that in grad school in my computer modeling research, I would have been expelled.

            The mistake people make is they believe computer models because there is a track record of them being used in engineering successfully. What they do not understand is just how much validation must occur before they are put into practice. Climate models are at the quality level of academic novelties. They have some interesting results, but are useless for application. Validation has been attempted, but the models failed.

            Upon reviewing what is in and what is not in the models, it is easy to see why they cannot possibly be right. Too many real and important phenomena are left out and are combined into an arbitrary parameter, a fudge factor.

            Until science is capable of predicting the full complex output of the sun decades in advance, able to predict geological activity including heat flux throughout the surface of the earth, able to predict the jet stream decades into the future (currently a few days in advance is considered good), and oceanic oscillations’ state vectors decades in advance, trying to predict the climate simply cannot occur.

          • Assistant Village idiot

            I agree with that. I would add that the attention the skeptics receive is often from outsiders, for political reasons. I think the underlying answer to DavidT’s approach is from SSC ” Can things be both popular and silenced?” They can, though it is complicated.

          • DavidT

            “The bottom line is that the climate models fail to accurately predict the climate.”

            We bare beginning to find common ground. As a physician who also has a PhD in physiology and runs a major lab, I am very much aware that science works at 3 levels, at least: data/facts; hypotheses/theories/models. It can be argued reasonably that the data/facts of climate change are legion: thousands of observations of change over nearly 40 years are consistent. The hypotheses and theories to account for those changes are also fairly robust, but not perfect, and not uncontested: is CO2 a ‘greenhouse gas’ or not? Plenty of skeptics say no.

            Models, on the other hand, are always the weakest level at which science operates. Even in my specialty, cardiology, we have very poor models of cardiac function, but I always point out that this doesn’t mean that people don’t get heart attacks: but it does mean that we don’t know the contribution of classic risk factors such as sodium intake, LDL/HDL, etc — and we never even suspected a role for inflammation, which may be even more critical. We can’t predict weather with much accuracy, so I don’t expect much from models of climate.

            Otherwise I am simply agnostic.

          • Just call me Joe

            When I first started looking into anthropogenic global warming theory, it was to understand the technical details. I had presumed that the people working the problem had done a diligent and professional job. I was wrong.

            What I found was sloppy analysis, student level software quality, missing physics, and plenty of outright fraud. I was appalled.

          • DavidT

            I’ll defer to your expertise here — this strikes me as a reasonable conclusion. What is clear, though, is that the same claims are made about global warming skeptics and their work, and for a simple physician like me the technical issues are interesting but way outside of my zone…. The mini-debate here has been about the sociology of science, and whether scientists on one side of the issue are silenced, and there simply seemed to me to be many examples of bullying on both sides: Mann has had death threats; Curry has been reviled. But both continue to enjoy fairly nice academic positions, publish their work, get the grants, etc. Jeez, even Willie Soon, who was described as being willing to produce whatever result the person paying for his research wanted, is still nicely employed by Harvard as far as I am aware!

          • OWilson

            I was of a similar bent, but found over the years, the undoubted slight increase in the Earth’s average temperature was being spun into political platforms, by folks who exaggerated and exploited the issue.

            They painted doomsday scenarios “5 Years to save the planet” stuff, “great “extinctions”, making it a global economic issue which could only be solved by gutting the West’s cheap energy, and sending $billions in “climate reparations” to corrupt third world governments, curtesy of the U.N. who, after failing to stem wars, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, had found a new and less demanding way to keep their bloated budgets flowing!

            The real scientists were a little more reserved, and inserted many qualifications into their projected scenarios, “IF”, “MAY”, “COULD”, THEN”, but these provisos were totally ignored by the MSM and by opportunistic politicians who pushed their own political agenda into the “solutions”.

            In their cynical arrogance, when their models failed, their doomsday scenarios and ‘tipping points” did not come to pass, they just doubled down on the rhetoric.

            Sadly science has been compromised by politics.

          • Assistant Village idiot

            I think that is a fair list. I would add Lindzen. They do have some success. However, are they not also significantly criticised and pushed to the margins? They are good at resisting that, yet they don’t seem to have had the impact that they should.

      • Just call me Joe

        Like who?

        I have a college friend at NOAA who is involved in the satellite data. He said “The data is good, but what they do with it is just wrong.” I asked why he didn’t report it. He said, “Because I would be fired if I said anything.”

        • DavidT

          Well, that doesn’t really answer the question I raised, does it?

          And as nice as your anecdote is, it’s just an anecdote.

          • OWilson

            It almost became official policy.

            “We will bring climate deniers (whatever that is) to justice!” – Bernie Sanders

            He had at least 22 State Attorneys ready to file suit to implement that policy!

          • DavidT

            Again, not an answer to my question.

          • OWilson

            I don’t think living with the threat of “being brought to justice” for their scientific views, is achieving success in their fields.

            If by “success” in their field you mean peer approval, and being taken seriously by the current culture, they have failed.

            They are being denigrated and insulted, by politicians, and and the 97% of their peers, every day!

            They are even considered criminals, in collusion with some Big Oil conspiracy, by a good portion of the public!

            For just posting monthly updates of NOAA”s satellite temperature record, on Discover’s Global Warming Blog, I was labeled, “a threat to humanity”, a lot of other distasteful things, and actually banned “for posting the same old stuff!

            Fortunately there still remain some sober semblance of free speech in society, that keeps these luddites and their pitchforks at bay! :)

            For now!

          • DavidT

            Again, not responsive. I’ll withdraw from this pointless exchange.

          • OWilson

            Agreed! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            A wise choice. More should do the same. šŸ˜€

          • Mike Richardson

            You won’t get one, just pointless political jabs and cherry-picked data to support absurd positions. Which is the real reason he got himself banned from the Imageo blog. Not bullying.

          • OWilson

            Getting a little lonely over there in the alarmist global warming blog, Mikey?

            Comments are rare in that blog, these days!

            Outright banning, and constant threats to posters who don’t agree with the “conventional wisdom” of the moderator is no longer an appropriate place to question the dogma.

            The scientific debate has moved on! :)

  • Marshall Gill

    Expect to hear from Michael Mann’s attorneys.

  • Cjones1

    Do scientists flourish under dictators and crazy leaders? The academies of prestige have a record of suppressing new ideas. The science is not settled in so many areas and we still have so much to discover.
    Were past myths fiction or were Hercules, Mermaids, etc., examples of genetic manipulations?

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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