The Scariest Halloween Post for Scientists

What are the things that scare a scientist the most?

In honour of Halloween, I thought of exploring the terrifying, the macabre and the anxiety-provoking issues that regularly affect synthetic biologists as well as other scientists. These are the thoughts that plague us late into the night, long after the ghosts of other problems have gone to sleep. In no particular order I shall touch upon a few things that turn our bones to jelly, shiver our timbers and spook us worse than ectoplasm.


  • The lack of jobs in academia.

PhD students are about as likely as young footballers to be able to pursue a career in their choice of field (pun intended!). Only 3-4% of PhD graduates in the UK will end up with a permanent position at a university. At the same time, 80% are satisfied with their decision to pursue a PhD and 75% would like to continue their academic career. These numbers simply do not add up; and therefore the situation has been likened to a pyramid scheme. Another related problem, one which may seem like a perk at first to those who love travelling: the constant moving.


  • The lack of funding in science.

Grant proposals are tough and only 26% of the proposals submitted to the UK research councils in 2015/2016 were granted, a reduction from 2012/2013 and getting close to the 20% success rate of the biggest funder in the US, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Grant applications are a daunting and gruelling process and there are biases are at work against early career researchers: most grant winners are 45 or older and new investigators have the added pressure of having to prove themselves worthy, unlike more established scientists.


  • The prevalence of mental health issues in academia.

Academia appears to be especially conducive to poor mental health. A third of PhD students were at risk or had already developed a psychiatric disorder in a small study performed by Levecque et al. Research is a frustrating career – the frequency of failure and job insecurity are high, there is pressure from peers and superiors to work long hours and sacrifice one’s private life to the altar of science, and perfectionist-triggered anxiety and impostor syndrome are rife. Furthermore, the stigma associated with talking about mental health problems does not help.


  • The political landscape.

From war to political turmoil to cuts in funding to the rise of populism and racist attitudes, the current political climate can be detrimental to science.

Post-truth has become the buzzword of 2016/17. To quote George Orwell:

 Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Replace ‘political language’ with post-truth and the accuracy is chilling. Truth is the cornerstone of science and living in a world where facts do not matter is a scientist’s worst nightmare.
The attempts of the Trump administration to silence researchers and especially the dialogue around man-made climate change are terrifying. The uncertainty caused by Brexit to funding and the potential academic exodus aka ‘brain drain’ that this process will encourage is another example of the impact of politics on science. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a nation suffering from food and medicine shortages, inflation and debt, Venezuelan science has also taken a heavy hit.


According to a Nature survey of 1576 researchers:

More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.

According to Ioannidis’ highly cited publication with a name like a slap in the face: ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’, there are more research claims that are false than true. There is more to blame than the rate of false positives, which using the conventional p value of 0.05 would mean that 5% of all published finding are false (135,000 out of an estimated 2.7 million publications in 2016; beautifully illustrated by xkcd). Other factors at play include the size of the study, the size of the effect being measured, the number of relationships tested, and financial, confirmation and other kinds of bias. However there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In the words of this comment piece, go forth and replicate!

There are many other stumbling blocks to science, from sexism in peer review to manels, to dealing with failure, to racismto lack of open access, to costs of publishing, to the pressure to publish, to unwillingness to publish negative results, to predatory journals.

Added to that, there are global issues such as global warming, the threat of (nuclear) war, the rise of antibiotic resistance and the failure to discover new antibiotics, the overpopulation crisis, the rise of AI, the sustainability of technology, social injustice, the increasing gap between rich and poor, meteors, killer flu, and not knowing which p-value to use.


Is it a wonder that scientists may be some of the bravest humans?



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