Galileo's curse, 

Or the culture of martyrdom in science

It’s 11 pm on Friday night and I’m throwing a one-person party in my lab. I take a snapshot of myself against a background of hundreds of tubes and send it to my friends with a caption “Living la vida loca.” My friends respond with photos from a karaoke bar and sympathetic lines of encouragement.

One might think I am extremely unhappy spending Friday night at work, but it is not so. The photo captures a genuine smile and a just-so-slightly-insane twinkle in my eyes. I am getting l a strange satisfaction in forgoing the good old Friday night fun for the sake of experiments. I feel like a true scientist – a self-sacrificing modern-day Galileo, burning up my adrenal glands.

It is not unusual for me to stay in the lab past the normal nine-to-five. What is more unusual today is that I am the only one working after dark – normally, there is at least a couple people pipetting away alongside me into the wee hours of the night. Fueled by caffeine, my colleagues sacrifice sleep, exercise, and personal life to obtain the data.

My lab is not an outlier: scientists are notorious for working long hours, weekends and nights. A poll by Nature magazine revealed that 40% of scientists work more than 60 hours a week. Another study traced scientific article downloads from the Springer database to show that science never sleeps: average after-midnight download rates were as high as 15-42% of the peak productivity rates for weekday afternoons.

Why do scientists work so much? We seem to take pride in nights spent sleeping on the office couch and lack of social life. We derive a strange pleasure in boasting our miserly postdoc salaries to our non-science peers who have gone through multiple rounds of promotion by the time they turn 30.

It seems to me that science professions glorify a culture of martyrdom, a deeply rooted stereotype. Look at the historic image of a scientist – while ancient philosophers are depicted strolling through olive gardens drinking wine, the scientist is always portrayed as a feverishly assiduous, self-exiled hermit.

During the early Renaissance, the pursuit of knowledge demanded great personal sacrifice. Galileo Galilei is the most famous example: in his dedication to propagate Copernicus’s ideas, he angered the Church and was prosecuted for heresy. Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest and became immortalized as the "martyr of science." His less fortunate predecessor, Giordano Bruno, ended up burned at the stake.

"Productivity follows an M-shaped curve, where scientists who work for 20 hours per week accomplish twice as much as those who work 35 hours per week. And while those who worked 50 hours did produce slightly more than their 35-hour colleagues, those who did over 60 produced the least"

Compared to the fate of Galileo and Bruno, the voluntary confinement of modern-day scientists may not seem like much of a sacrifice, but it does take a toll. Working long hours means deprioritizing other things, like hobbies, leisure, social interactions and even family time, which can have negative consequences on mental health. A staggering 30 to 45% of graduate students experience mental health problems, according to surveys done at University of California Irvine and Berkley.

Dedicated work ethic can have a negative effect on physical health as well: A meta-analysis of 25 studies from University College London found that those who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of stroke compared with those who work a 35- to 40-hour week. 

Does the dedication pay off? A study conducted in the 1950s revealed that productivity in science follows an M-shaped curve, where scientists who work for 20 hours per week accomplish twice as much as those who work 35 hours per week. And while those who worked 50 hours did produce slightly more than their 35-hour colleagues, those who did over 60 produced the least of all groups.

It is true that some scientists love living in lab, chasing the next break-through discovery or the coveted Nobel Prize. But what about the rest of us for whom science if just a job? Whether or not it is Galileo’s fault, we need to acknowledge an unhealthy work culture in science. We do not have to be martyrs to be good scientists. We are highly-skilled workers and invaluable contributors to our society’s progress, but we should not have to sacrifice our own health and happiness for the betterment of the planet.

If you find yourself in lab late on a Friday night, pause to ask: “Why am I here?”. Do you believe these few extra hours will result in that Nobel Prize break-through, or are you being misguided by society’s perception of what a scientist should be doing? Perhaps a more important task is to change these stereotypes – by punching out at 5 PM – so that science becomes a more welcoming field for those who want a balance between work and life.

KT

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