Psychological anxiety and abuse pervasive in marine science

Early on in their marine science career, researchers face bleak conditions in their field.credit: Getty

Unpaid work, mental health disorders, discrimination and abuse are rampant concerns in marine science, according to a survey of early-career students and researchers in the field.1.

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

Several participants, particularly those who identified as female or non-intersex, reported feeling anxious, depressed, or fatigued. More than 60% of respondents felt that their mental health had worsened due to their work. More than a third reported having worked in unpaid jobs under precarious conditions, including situations where they had to use broken or unsanitary equipment, or did not have adequate protection from chemicals. The survey did not provide more information about working conditions.

While attending the 2019 World Congress of Marine Mammal Sciences in Barcelona, ​​Spain, the study’s lead author – Anna Osica, a marine researcher at the University of Gdask in Poland – says she’s heard an unusually high number of anecdotes about unpaid work and abuse from graduates. the students. To explore the extent of these experiments, she and her colleagues launched the online survey, which targeted early-career researchers from undergraduate students to postdoctoral researchers in ocean and marine sciences.

Limited variety

Most of the survey participants were between the ages of 22 and 35, and 82% of them were women. Less than half of the respondents have had or maintained a paid job in ocean science, yet 49% of them have an undergraduate degree in the field. Most of them were white and from the North — a possible result of survey methods, which included outreach on social media and professional mailing lists, Osica says. She suggests that the large number of white respondents may be why she and her colleagues have not been able to deduce the effect of race on respondents’ experiences as they had hoped.

However, the lack of responses from people of color highlights the lack of diversity that has long plagued ocean science. In the United States, for example, nearly 35% of the population identifies as black, Latino, and/or indigenous, yet Latino students earn less than 10% of graduate degrees in Earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences, while Black students earn less than 3% according to 2019 data from the US National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.

Cassandra Newkirk, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says the survey results resonated as the only black postdoc in her department. “I’ve had instances where I’ve felt minimally invasive,” says Newkirk, who was unaware of the scans. “That’s why I don’t want to talk anymore,” she says, adding that she doesn’t want the tension that comes with academia. “I don’t want to be a faculty member,” she says.

Harassment and poor working conditions spread

Less than a quarter of survey respondents told their superiors about some abuse they experienced — ranging from discriminatory exclusion from work to performing tasks that put their health, life or safety at risk — and less than 3% said they reported it. Entire. These respondents said they feared losing a career or job opportunities in their desired field if they reported the abuse. Osica says that leaders in marine science and ocean conservation should create mechanisms to improve safety, for example, by crafting a code of conduct so that harassers can be kept away from workplaces and professional meetings, or developing a way for junior researchers to report abuse safely and anonymously. their identity. .

Respondents painted a picture of the prevalence of unpaid work. Only about 60% of all reported working time was paid to participants; The rest was either unpaid or compensated with food and board. Survey results also indicated that respondents spent, on average, more than $6,000 USD to cover travel costs, visas, or work-related insurance. Just over half received professional references for their unpaid work.

Marine sciences has long struggled to improve racial and gender equity, creating a welcoming environment for people of all socioeconomic classes, says Eddie Love, program director and chair of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Initiative at The Ocean Foundation. It is an international non-profit environmental conservation organization based in Washington, DC. But that struggle is paying off, he says, in part because junior researchers are challenging leaders across discipline to be responsible for increasing employee diversity, addressing harassment and establishing a healthy workplace culture. “Progress has been made, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” he says.

To make the system more inclusive, Osica says, its culture must change. For example, she says ocean and marine researchers who are familiar with yachting, know how to sail or can afford expensive diving certifications, are the most competitive candidates for jobs available because of their privileged circumstances. Furthermore, she notes that it is usually these applicants who can afford to take an unpaid internship. “We’re expected to get a lot of unpaid experience to even deserve to be paid in the first place, which is absolutely ridiculous,” she says. “People should get paid for whatever work they do.”

Intertwined with the pay-for-work issue is the problem of huge workloads and a steep learning curve for junior scientists, which inevitably leads to burnout, says Mibow Fisher. The lack of diversity in the workplace – particularly amid the country’s push to reconcile relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – says Fisher, a Brisbane-based marine ethnoecologist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, an Australian government research agency. You feel tired and overworked. isolated.

Fisher, an Aboriginal Queensland woman, is working on ways to integrate Aboriginal knowledge with academic science. She is concerned that efforts to eliminate unpaid labor in the field are leaving limited funding to complete projects. This, she says, leads to small teams that cost a great deal of work — and often limit important participation from Indigenous groups.

Osica hopes the survey results will help show the scale of workplace abuse and discrimination across discipline. “It’s not just about being ridiculed, overreacting, or over-sensitive,” she says. “There is a huge problem with how we are all treated.”

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