"Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work." So said Horace, the Roman lyric poet, over two millennia ago and little has changed since. I am currently one to attest to that sentiment as I am in the middle of writing up my PhD thesis and have accordingly developed the peculiar mania that grips many students at this stage in their degree where non-thesis pursuits become shamefully wasteful or even patently corrosive of your time! So, I'm afraid that this week's post from me is just a brief one, and the long-promised 'human machine' edition on stem cells is being pushed back yet again, apologies.
In light of this sudden idiopathic workaholism that overtaken me, it seems appropriate that my post this week be on the subject of how hard scientists work. Coming into science I knew that the pay is generally crap, and it's not particularly glamorous, and you have to look for a new job every three years until you settle down with your own cosy lab somewhere - but at least it's a fairly nice lifestyle, right? Well yes and no. I love the academic lifestyle - it's the right mix of individual freedom and motivating challenges, by which I mean that it isn't too stressful but isn't boring either. That has been my experience (present situation excluded), but a recent report from the University of Nottingham suggests that I may have been one of the lucky ones, or perhaps that things are going to worsen for me!
The report (available here) looked at the working hours of conservation scientists in several countries by analysing the time and day of 25,000 publication submissions to the journal Biological Conservation. It's true that this is not, perhaps, the most reliable indicator of general working patterns since people tend to put in extra hours in the run-up to publication, but the results are still intriguing nonetheless. The long and the short of their findings are that scientists, basically, work pretty damn hard (well, conservation biologists at least). They observed that 16% of manuscripts were submitted late at night, and 12% were submitted at weekends, and that the proportion of work submitted outside of normal hours has been increasing ~5% each year. This paints a fairly bleak picture for the future if working hours are going to stretch further and further into personal time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also found significant differences in working habits between different countries. The countries whose scientists seem to work the most unsociable hours are Japan and Mexico, who seem to work late (~30% manuscripts submitted out of hours on weekdays), as well as China and India, who work weekends a lot (up to 40% submitted at weekends). The most relaxed scientists were found in Belgium and Norway, who like their weekends off (~5% submitted on weekends), as well as South Africa and Finland, who go home at 5 (less than 10% submitted after hours on weekdays) - thus explaining Shaun's abrupt move to Helsinki three years ago! British and American scientists were about average in their working habits.
So what makes many scientists so busy, and why do they stick at it for often quite poor salaries? Well the combined research, teaching, reviewing, and administrative duties of senior scientists puts a big strain on their time. The authors of this investigation warn that this can may be having a negative impact on the quality of the science produced, as well as the happiness of the researchers themselves. Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, who led the study, reflects: