Protect your head

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Artwork by Mark Palfreyman

Rugby and motorsport are taking head trauma seriously – will science do the same?

On December 8th, rugby player Steve Thompson, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, joined a lawsuit with several former rugby players to sue the game’s authorities for negligence. Aged just 42, he is suffering from early onset dementia, has scant memory of his playing days, and like many of the group, increasingly fearful for the burden he seems destined to place on those around him. His professional career has given him a life-altering brain injury.

Thompson’s playing career straddled the pre- and post-professional era. Rugby has been a professional sport for much less time than many (just 25 years), and its culture is one where it has always been acknowledged that you get banged about. Until recently, those risks were cheerfully accepted in a macho culture that ignored or even glorified injury. These are hard men, and they like being seen that way.

But things have changed. There is now a growing consensus that long-lasting injuries acquired in the course of a job are unacceptable, and especially so if the risks were never made clear in advance. The culture of previous years doesn’t apply because professional players are now playing more than ever, and at greater intensity. The players are bigger, stronger, and faster. The hits are getting harder. The competition is getting more intense, and the whole game has gotten more serious and scary (just look at what has happened to the haka between the 70s and the present day).

These are of course professional sportspeople, and well-compensated for what they do. They are asked to push themselves to a physical limit, to test their courage and nerve and speed of thought, but they are not and never should be asked to deliberately maim themselves unawares. In the USA, the NFL has also belatedly woken up to the damage inflicted in the past, with a group of former players getting a $1 bn settlementfor brain damage caused by repeated concussions.

These insights have not yet percolated over to academia, where the situation is very similar despite the apparently different circumstances. Science as a profession, like rugby, is also relatively young, only dating to around the postwar era. It too has promoted a macho culture of long hours in the lab, frequent absenteeism from parenting and family life, and a high-pressure environment – costs supposedly justified by the exhilaration of being part of something big and new.

Over the last 50 years, but especially in the last 20 years, that exhilaration has palled. In the early days of professionalism there was a glut of available positions, plenty of new universities to be staffed, and career security from early on. This is not the case now.

Faculty positions have dried up. The pre-tenure period has extended. Young scientists are increasingly expected to sacrifice their time and energy on labwork to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Bullying, sexism, racism, injustice, and entrenched inequality are rampant, and – much like the American Dream – sustained by a consensual belief in the meritocratic division of rewards that is increasingly being seen instead as retained privilege.

And mental injury doesn’t need to be as dramatic as early onset dementia to still be crippling.

As in rugby, as in the NFL, there is a growing awareness of the awful toll that science is taking on its youngest practitioners in terms of mental health. These are the least secure members of the profession, but they are often shouldered with the burden of sustaining the research output of established groups. Hypercompetition, a culture of prestige publishing, the constant and awful awareness of their dispensability as individuals as more and more people enter the profession all add up.

The macho culture of research has made discussion of mental health issues – as in wider society – something of a taboo, but it is a taboo that needs breaking.

Formula 1 is a good example of a sport which has clamped down on safety after enduring its own horror years (driver Jackie Stewart has estimated that over 50 of his friends were killed). The recent introduction of the halo device in 2018 met with some protests (just as with seatbelts decades earlier) but Romain Grosjean’s escape at the 2020 Bahrain GP from a burning car shows how far things have come. The sport’s response has been creditable – rather than trumpet his survival, the reaction has been to ensure that a repeat is permanently prevented, even though this driver survived an accident that would have undoubtedly been fatal not so long ago.

Science, as a profession, and like motorsport, like rugby, has a responsibility for the wellbeing of its practitioners. We expect to work hard, we know that any creative profession entails a ride on an emotional rollercoaster, and we accept that luck (and for some, privilege) plays a role in success. But we should not accept mental trauma, long-lasting mental and emotional affliction, as simply being part of the job. It’s not, and it never should be.

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