A few weeks ago, while I was in a discussion about young academics and why they choose to stay in science or not, I made a point which I think is perfectly obvious, but which was snorted at by the older academics present. I said that when a postdoc looks at the people ahead of them in the system, they see stressed tired people who regularly work evenings and weekends, who have to fight continually for their funding (i.e. their job security), and who not make a lot of money for their effort. This is not something that most people want to look forward to. The people my age in the group remained quiet and listened to the older ones there pooh-pooh the idea. The more senior academics asked me, “do you personally see that problem ahead of you?”. And I said “yes”, and described the unhealthy work ethic that I sometimes see around me. And the discussion stopped there. Because the loudest snorter of them all actually said “well, you’re from Britain – you’re not used to working as hard as we do here. You don’t have money for the really big projects. And you stop for tea three times a day!”. I pointed out that it’s only twice a day, but my serious point about the work was no longer taken seriously.
This annoyed me. So when I went back to my office, I looked a few things up. Thomson (the academic publishers) publish tables every year of the total number of scientific papers published by each country and also the “Total papers among the one per cent most cited in all fields”. I then looked up the current populations of each country and so got to the numbers of papers per capita. Here are the results:
Total papers per capita: USA: 9.6 per thousand people per year UK: 10.9 per thousand people per year.
Papers in the top 1%: USA: 0.18 per thousand people per year. UK: 0.17 per thousand people per year.
Now, I’m happy to admit that simple statistics may not tell the whole story. But I’m also pretty confident that this is a strong indication that taking two 15 minutes breaks a day to consume cups of tea and eat biscuits is not doing us any harm at all, thank you very much. And next time anyone tries to snort at my view of working hours on that basis, I will politely share these data with them and offer to induct them into the world of the tea break. If they’re nice, I might even give them a biscuit.