Saturday, April 14, 2007

Scientific Bullying

So I recently posted about my experience at NIH. One of the problems there was that governmental employees felt safe and felt like they could get away with anything and therefore felt free to be lazy and dishonest because they "knew" there was no consequences for bad behavior. In order to get anything accomplished my supervisor at NIH had to use aggressive techniques, so aggressive that he was labelled "a bully". I knew he was exceedingly intolerant of bullshit. As a friend of mine who incidentally had followed him up here from Australia said that as long as "you were intelligent, honest, worked hard, and did your job competently you would not have a problem with Allan". In fact because he got tired of banging heads with idiots he brought me in to circumvent them. Which would have maybe worked if some of them hadn't had the ear of higher ups. I think it hurt that while most of the nasties were life long NIH employees, despite being tenured, Allan had only been there for 6 years. That probably didn't help. There were also rumors that he and others in the dept and NIH lost a "harassment" lawsuit about improperly hounding someone into quitting (sound familiar?). I have a feeling it was another less than honest researcher and Allan was doing what he had to get rid of them.
Up until then I always thought that a bully was a bully and it was cut and dry. Its not. I also have heard stories of true bullies who are nasty and vengeful even after people leave their positions. From what I can tell, especially in academia, bullying is very common, and at least in my case a necessary evil. I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has been on either end of a bullying situation.

1 comment:

annduk said...

My 'bully' was somewhat different. Although I obviously don't know your boss' situation, it sounds as though he was himself being to some degree bullied by his group, and may or may not have reacted by excessive aggression in his turn. In the case of the professor that I'm referring to, his bullying consisted of threatening and damaging *individuals*, rather than imposing his will, justifiably or unjustifiably, on a group. He was often very stealthy and dishonest about doing things to damage other people's careers, and caused a lot of fear among vulnerable people (he seemed to have a particular 'thing' about anyone with any form of permanent or temporary physical disability).

I cannot go into too much detail without risking breaking other people's confidentiality; but a couple of examples:

(1) I applied for a 'University Research Lectureship', on the recommendation of other people in my department. This is a post that gives me the status and official security of a lecturer, though I still need to raise my salary through grants. There was a committee of three members of my department to consider the application. Two of them supported me; but he wrote to the board of the university, as though it was from the whole committee, stating that my statistics were not good enough, that I was giving my graduate student the wrong statistical advice, etc. (I should add that (a) the student had two supervisors; (b) we sent him to a professional statistician for his advice on these statistics - it did not come from me; (c) he later published a paper on this work in a fairly competitive journal, and none of the four peer-reviewers criticized the statistics). As the chair of the relevant board was not in the field, or indeed a scientist at all, he just took this man's word for it, and rejected my application. Subsequently I got written references from a statistician and from other people in my field, and this, combined with the fact that the two other committee members were naturally pretty upset when they found out what he'd done, meant that I did get the URL the next time I applied - but my supporters had to make absolutely sure that this man did not know about it in advance.

(2) He found out, 10 years after she left, that a former graduate student of his had been offered a job in another country 5000 miles away. She had not asked him for a reference, and he only found out accidentally that she had got the job, from a colleague of hers who was on the editorial board of a journal that he edited. She had offended him as a student by being too independent, and I think even more, by having a lot of physical health problems. Therefore, he rang the head of the department who had offered her the job and told her that she should not on any account take the ex-student; that she had 'never done any experiments' (not true); and other accusations. Fortunately, the head of the overseas department recognized this as some form of vindictiveness, and did not rescind the job offer.

There have been many other such incidents with a number of other people. Many younger people either left the university (though, as incident 2 reveals, even emigration did not make them perfectly safe from him), or left research altogether. I was geographically restricted and could not move, and I very strongly did not wish to give up research, so I stuck it out, but at a considerable cost, both financially and emotionally. I feel much more relaxed and more productive at the same time since he finally left!

It is interesting, by the way, that you mention that your boss had only been in the place for a short time; and that the group, who complained about him, were all people with tenure. It is my observation that bullying often involves long-serving people bullying newcomers and/or the tenured bullying the not-fully-tenured (including partially retired people), quite as much as it involves higher-status people in the traditional sense bullying lower-status people. This contributes to my feeling that, though your mentor was technically 'the boss', he may have in fact been more bullied than bully.