A plea to end an academic culture of bullying and harassment

A toxic academic bullying culture has evolved from whispers in university corridors to infiltrating social media spaces. A recent report by the Wellcome Trust stated: "Survey findings indicated that 43% had experienced bullying or harassment, while 61% had witnessed it." That is not a good number.

Academic bullies have learned to weaponise their elite status, posturing around their purported prestige. Observable characteristics include exhibiting an increasing appetite to appear progressively woke, while actually doing nothing to help improve society or use their privilege for good. Bullies simultaneously claim to be righteously above apparently lower forms of public discourse, and yet remain vehicles for cancel culture and ‘academic mobbing’. These delightfully manipulative methods have discordantly sown themselves within academic discourses, now adopting sophisticated techniques of humiliation, aggressive character assassination, and emotional abuse.

Science, we often hear, holds the key to saving this planet: preventing catastrophic climate change, the 6th mass extinction, and providing food, energy, and water security for all. Yet, we have placed this responsibility onto a community that often prioritises showmanship and moral grandstanding over behaving with honour. The attainment of merit and truth has been replaced by personal marketing of mediocre science. A quest, often led by Oxbridge-cultist-leaders with baying cliques who harass anyone who diverges even slightly from the status quo. The risk of standing up to bullies is no longer a black eye, but the end of your career.

The silent majority is ruled by fear. I am writing this for them, for you. Not out of anger, or sadness, but because I remain disappointed that we seem to have fostered a culture where being a bully is a desirable characteristic. That does not feel right. I think we can all think of people who fit this characteristic. I can think of many, and know horror stories of more.

Research communities are dominated by individuals who have little experience of the world outside of academia. They have dwelt in the relative comfort of their ivory towers. Here, remaining blinded to the wider reality of life outside, and all that is important within it. When you bear witness to thousands of senior researchers engaging in regular public ‘academic mobbings‘, like we were still in high school, you really begin to question the functional value of a PhD. Our academic leaders are no longer elite, but they remain elitist.

We have a civic duty to behave in a more ethical and responsible way as a global research community. Modern scientists do not need to be just highly intellectual; they need to be emotionally exceptional too. They need empowerment as world-changing heroes, taught to challenge the status quo, not suppressed by it. For a healthier research culture, we must foster humility over egoism, integrity over nepotism, and compassion over competition. It starts with each of us doing what we can.