Psychological harassment, intimidation, threats, insults, blackmail, overloaded schedule, financial precariousness: students who attended the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) denounce a toxic climate in certain laboratories of this flagship institution of health sciences in the Quebec. Disgusted, some have even abandoned the research community.

“The atmosphere in my laboratory is really what took away my desire to continue studying in this field. »

In 2019, Kevin Loayza-Vega joined the IRCM to complete a master’s degree. But the experience he had in his laboratory discouraged him from pursuing science.

The 28-year-old has reoriented himself, he is now an entrepreneur in the field of construction. He left the IRCM even before obtaining his diploma.

Kevin had to be in the lab up to “60 hours a week”, 7 days a week, “for almost a year”, “doing tasks that technically should have been done by employees”, he says. example. All this, in addition to the usual courses and exams that must be taken in connection with his master’s degree (mostly during the first year). “It’s not a job, I [was] a student,” he recalls. He alleges that he was under excessive pressure from his research supervisor.

To this day, he claims that if it weren’t for that “toxic vibe” he would have “stayed there and finished [his] master’s degree.”

La Presse spoke with nine students or former students who attended the IRCM from 2010 to today, most of them in the same three laboratories. Eight of them requested anonymity because they are still navigating the field of science and fear that their testimony will harm their careers.

“Each research director makes his law”, drops Claudia*. The young woman attended the same laboratory as Kevin. She testified to the “hell” she experienced during her years at the IRCM. “A lot of harassment, bullying, a lot of yelling at. »

Like Kevin, she says she had to be in the lab up to 60 hours a week, often 7 days a week. She.

A “typical” day involved name-calling, threats, door-slamming, Claudia says. “Being told we’re pigs, that happened a lot. Marie-Pierre*, also from this laboratory, testified to the same kind of climate.

Encouraged by the management and academic affairs of the institute to whom she had spoken about her situation – and who had replied that she “was not the first” – Claudia tried to file a formal complaint.

First to her university department, where she was told that “what [she had] been through was normal.” Then at the IRCM, where a change in personnel required her to start the whole process over again. “[The new person in charge] was questioning me as to whether really what I had experienced was bullying and harassment. »

This questioning got the better of Claudia’s complaint. “From that moment, I told myself that I would not stay at the IRCM. She still works in science, but has given up academic research.

The young woman ignores it, but several years before her, another student had tried the same process: Amélie*. “Your director is the queen of her lab,” she was told at the time. Faced with the inability of resources to help her, the young woman confronted the researcher. “It’s not possible to treat people like that,” she remembers telling him, tearfully, in her office. Nothing has changed.

“He is renowned for two things [my research director]: for his contribution to the [university] environment, but also for the way he treats the people over whom he has authority”, illustrates Léo*, who was trained in the IRCM.

Benjamin*, from the same laboratory as Léo, agrees. His research supervisor could make “very inappropriate remarks.”

Once, when a student in the lab had to take time off for a family emergency, the researcher exclaimed, “He took a vacation for that?” That’s life, people get sick and can die,” Benjamin recalls, still shaken.

“An experiment hadn’t worked, and the day of the presentation [of the results], [the researcher] went crazy. […] He shouted, “Fuck, this is shit [this is shit],” he describes. He makes you feel like you’re less than nothing. »

Leo goes so far as to say that his director sees the students “as slaves”. “He doesn’t treat us like students, and he doesn’t treat us like workers either, because workers have rights. »

Nathan*, who attended another IRCM laboratory for a few years, remembers living there in a “climate of fear”.

“If you’re not in the lab, [the researcher] walks around the IRCM, he wonders where you are,” Nathan explains. If you’re having dinner, he might be a little upset, but it’s still better than not knowing where you are. »

The young man claims to have often heard his research director insult students – “idiot, stupid” – or even imitate them to make fun of them.

Nathan also denounces that the care of the mice, a thankless job, is entrusted to certain students as a “secret punishment” in the laboratory, while there is an animal care attendant service offered to researchers by the IRCM. Kevin and Claudia also denounced this work which had been their responsibility in their laboratory, their director refusing to do business with the service of the institute.

Prior to being president and scientific director of the institute, Dr. Jean-François Côté worked in student affairs and then in academic affairs at the institute. While he held these positions, students met by La Presse went to see him to denounce the situations in the laboratories.

Dr. Côté, however, says he could not act without a formal complaint, which he encouraged the students to do.

To date, he laments that the students have not followed the process in place. “You can’t wave a magic wand,” adds Dr. Côté. The door is open, we want to help direct them to this complaint procedure. It didn’t happen,” he argues.

Same story with Sébastien Sabbagh, director of academic affairs at the institute: “You have to file a complaint to go all the way. »

“You can’t go and do micromanagement in all 35 labs,” says Dr. Côté. That’s 35 completely different management styles. […] There are some [researchers] who are good at management, there are some who are not good, there are those who are introverted and who are not able to communicate, there are those who make weird moves. »

“It’s a shame that three labs are like this, but the general climate is not like this,” he concludes.

On April 3, in response to the cases identified by La Presse, the IRCM also declared that it had continued and “intensified the deployment already underway on several fronts of measures and safeguards to promote a healthy climate and allow people who wish to to effectively report any potential issues and obtain follow-up”.

In particular, the institute’s ombudsman “undertook a tour of all the laboratories in order to highlight its service offer as well as the rules for responsible laboratory management”.

“We have set in motion the work of our well-being committee and hold regular and open meetings with members of the student association, among others. Our [President and Scientific Director] also sent out a communication to everyone reiterating our commitment to promoting a healthy and caring environment. »

“One step at a time, but with the determination to do it right,” concludes the IRCM.

The student association did not respond to our questions.

Of the nine students La Presse spoke with, six have left or will soon leave academia. The other three think about it. “I wouldn’t wish another student to go through this,” Kevin regrets. It’s ridiculous, it cuts your desire to study science. »

Affiliated with the University of Montreal and associated with McGill University, the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM) is a health research center. It is made up of around thirty laboratories, each headed by an eminent researcher who is the research director of the students or trainees under his wing. There are also four specialized research clinics, including a long COVID clinic. The Institute’s researchers are particularly interested in cancer and immunology, and their teams are behind many scientific advances. The IRCM is financed mainly by public funds – more than 15 million annually from the Ministry of Economy, Innovation and Energy of Quebec for its operation, and more than 23 million from the federal government for grants in research, which researchers must obtain for themselves.

Just over one in three doctoral students have considered quitting their studies to preserve their mental health, according to a survey of 3,352 respondents in the UK.

Proportion of students who reported seeking help for anxiety or depression related to their PhD, out of 6,300 respondents from around the world.

“The money is the grant, the grant is [the researcher], so they will protect him at all costs,” says Nathan*, who studied at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute (IRCM ) for years.

For Marie-Pierre*, from another laboratory, “the problem is not the IRCM, it’s the research system”. She thus popularizes the thought reported by each of her colleagues.

Indeed, all the students or ex-students met by La Presse as part of this survey point to the structure of the university research system in general and, above all, the culture of silence that reigns there.

Many think that since the researcher is at the heart of the influence – both financial and scientific – of an institute, the measures in place were created to protect him.

“[My research supervisor] is like a superstar outside the lab, he brings in a lot of money, a lot of attention,” Leo* exemplifies. The researcher with whom he studied won various awards during his career.

Radiation or not, the president and scientific director of the Institute, Dr. Jean-François Côté, is blunt: “There is no protection, he assures. Everyone is treated the same. »

But in the event of a whistleblower, the consequences for a student’s career can be enormous, keeping many from speaking out.

Dr. Côté agrees to some degree of risk: “Students came to me to vent, but they also didn’t want to hurt their careers, they didn’t really want to do anything. So it’s in a kind of gray area where they don’t want anything to happen to them. »

For example, the researcher has a direct influence on the graduation of his students: he is a member of the jury responsible for evaluating the thesis or thesis of the student, illustrious Claudia *.

And changing laboratories along the way is not easy. “You can give up and redo [your journey], but you’re going to need a reference” to find a new supervisor, Claudia says. “It’s a small environment, you have to be sure of your choices. »

Many students also find themselves in a precarious financial situation, their basic “salary” (paid monthly in the form of a scholarship) being below the minimum wage.

And for those who wish to make pocket money, again, the influence of the researcher can be felt. Amélie saw this when she signed up to invigilate exams. “[My research director] said to me, ‘It’s not possible, you can’t do that.’ She didn’t even want me to go to the exam I had registered for. […] This is the kind of abuse that goes beyond our function as students in the laboratory. »

The day of its interview with La Presse, IRCM management revealed that it had just announced an increase in annual scholarships for its students with full-time status. Note that a student cannot hold a second job for more than 12 hours per week to maintain this status.

“We announced an increase [on February 23], precisely, for master’s and doctoral students, which will increase to $26,000 per year,” says Dr. Côté.

This represents an increase of a few thousand dollars annually, depending on the student, who must pay his tuition fees with this sum.

Moreover, the people interviewed for this survey all mentioned, at one point or another during the interview, the crying need for research to receive more funding from the provincial and federal governments, both in terms of subsidies granted to researchers than those offered to students.

Dr. Côté goes so far as to say that if the Fonds de recherche du Québec en santé training grants were increased from $21,000 to $30,000, in order to ease the financial burden on students and researchers, “all the problems [ would] be 90% settled”.