Mental anguish and mistreatment are rampant in marine science

Picturesque view of the sea against the sky.

Young researchers in marine science face grim conditions in their field.Photo credit: Getty

According to a survey of students and young scientists in the field, unpaid work, mental disorders, discrimination and abuse are common problems in marine science1.

Of the 492 respondents to the survey, conducted globally between April 1 and May 5, 2020, nearly three-quarters said they had experienced ridicule, discrimination and/or abuse at work or in their education. Almost a fifth of respondents reported sexual abuse and more than a third reported verbal abuse.

Many participants, particularly those who identified as female or non-binary, reported experiencing anxiety, depression, or burnout. More than 60% of respondents said their mental health had deteriorated as a result of their work. And more than a third said they worked in unpaid positions in risky conditions, including situations where they had to use faulty or unsanitary equipment or had inadequate chemical protection. The survey did not provide any more information on working conditions.

While attending the 2019 World Marine Mammal Science Conference in Barcelona, ​​Spain, the study’s lead author – Anna Osiecka, a marine researcher at the University of Gdańsk in Poland – said she heard an unusual number of anecdotes about unpaid work and graduate abuse Students. To explore the magnitude of these experiences, she and her colleagues launched the online survey, aimed at early-stage researchers from undergraduate to postdoctoral researchers in ocean and marine sciences.

Limited Variety

Most respondents were between the ages of 22 and 35, and 82% were women. Less than half of those surveyed had a paid job in marine science or marine conservation, but 49% had a college degree in the field. Most were white and from the Global North — a possible artifact of survey methods, which included social media outreach and professional mailing lists, Osiecka says. She notes that the high proportion of white respondents may be why she and her co-authors were unable to articulate the impact of race on respondents’ experiences in the way they had hoped.

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Still, the lack of responses from people of color underscores the lack of diversity that has long plagued marine research. For example, in the United States, about 35% of the population identifies as Black, Latinx, and/or Indigenous, yet Latinx students earn less than 10% in Earth, Atmospheric, and Ocean Sciences, and Black students earn less than 3%. , according to 2019 data from the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Casandra Newkirk, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the survey results resonate with her as the only black postdoc in her department. “I’ve had situations where I felt belittled,” says Newkirk, who was unaware of the survey. “It’s also why I don’t like to talk that much anymore,” she says, adding that she doesn’t want the academic stress. “I don’t want to be a faculty member,” she says.

Harassment and poor working conditions are widespread

Less than a quarter of survey respondents had told supervisors about some of the abuse they had experienced – from discriminatory exclusion from work to assignments that put their health, life or safety at risk – and just under 3% said they had reported it to have all of it. These respondents indicated that if they reported the abuse, they feared losing future career or job opportunities in their desired field. Osiecka says leaders in marine science and marine conservation need to create mechanisms to improve safety, such as creating a code of conduct so harassers can be removed from workplaces and professional meetings, or developing a way for early-career researchers to report abuse safely and anonymously .

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Respondents painted a picture of widespread unpaid work. Only about 60% of all working hours reported by the participants were paid; the rest was either unpaid or compensated by food and board. The survey results also showed that respondents spent more than $6,000 on average to cover work-related travel, visa or insurance costs. And just over half received professional references for their unpaid work.

Marine science has long struggled to improve racial and gender equity and create welcoming environments for people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, says Eddie Love, program manager and chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Initiative at The Ocean Foundation, an international nonprofit Conservation organization based in Washington DC. But that struggle is beginning to pay off, he says, in part because early-stage researchers are challenging leaders from all disciplines to be accountable for increasing workforce diversity, fighting harassment, and fostering a healthy workplace culture. “There has been progress, but there is still a lot to do,” he says.

To make the discipline more inclusive, its culture needs to change, says Osiecka. For example, researchers in marine and marine sciences who are knowledgeable about yachts, can sail, or can afford expensive diving licenses are more competitive candidates for vacancies because of their privileged circumstances. In addition, it is mostly those applicants who can afford to do unpaid internships. “We’re expected to have a lot of unpaid experience to even deserve to be paid at all, which is completely ridiculous,” she says. “People should be paid for every job they do.”

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Intertwined with the issue of wages for work is the problem of the enormous workload and a steep learning curve for young scientists, which inevitably leads to burnout, says Mibu Fischer. A Brisbane-based marine ethnoecologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the Australian government’s research agency, says Fischer is seeing a lack of diversity in the workplace – particularly given the country’s drive to balance relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians bring – causes her to feel overworked and isolated.

Fischer, an Aboriginal woman in Queensland, is working to create ways to integrate Indigenous knowledge with academic scholarship. She is concerned that efforts to eradicate unpaid labor in this area are leaving limited funds to complete projects. That, she says, results in small teams entrusted with a lot of work — and often limits the important involvement of indigenous groups.

Osiecka hopes the survey results will help show the extent of workplace abuse and discrimination across the discipline. “It’s not just single people who make fools of themselves, overreact or overreact,” she says. “There’s a massive problem with how we’re all being treated.”

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