Study: Lab Leaders Can Make Science Better & Improve Work Conditions

May 21, 2018

This week, the journal Nature released a survey of 3,200 scientists that showed many feel science is a friendly and collaborative field. Unfortunately, there is a sizable minority that find their labs are tense or even toxic. The good news is that the survey also points to several things that universities can do to systematically improve the academic workplace.

Nature’s Senior Editor Monya Baker spoke to us about the findings. She said that there are different realities for the people running the labs versus those who are students and post-docs.

“There is a consistent finding that the leaders found things much rosier than their graduate students and postdocs,” Baker said.

One concern: lab leaders are not checking raw data as often as they should be. The survey found that researchers welcome such inquiries by their supervisors.

“Having a lab head check in on raw data is not seen as something that’s hostile; it’d help people do better work,” said Baker. 

Another thing that came up in the survey was the idea that lab leaders need more training on managing people and mentoring. Two-thirds of lab heads say they haven’t received training in running a lab or in managing staff.

Baker says several organizations provide managerial training.

“They're offered by scientific societies and they’re often oversubscribed and in demand,” she said.

Of the 30 percent that did receive leadership training, “Five-to-one said it was useful,” said Baker. “If you make a supportive working environment, people can do more rigorous research,” she added.

To help improve the quality of research, Nature has instituted a checklist to include more detail about how experiments were done. "The most powerful time to be involved is while work is being done," as opposed to afterword, she said.

Baker said institutions like universities have a lot of influence that they haven’t exercised.

“[Most people feel] they belong to the lab group more than to the institution,” she said. But it doesn't have to be that way.

“I think if that changed, you would see stronger science and a more supportive environment,” she said.