No researcher should experience violence or threats while going about their work. But this is an ever-present danger for researchers in places such as Afghanistan that are controlled by totalitarian regimes. Increasingly, it is also a risk for researchers elsewhere who work in areas of science and public policy where views can be extremely polarized, such as in climate change or firearms control — or, indeed, in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A year ago, Nature polled researchers in several countries who had spoken to the media about COVID-19. We found that 47 out of 321 respondents (some 15%) had received death threats and 72 had been threatened with physical or sexual violence. The Science Media Centre in London published advice on how to get support. In an Editorial at the time, we urged institutions to recognize the seriousness of these threats and to do more to protect colleagues (Nature 598, 236; 2021).
Now, Nature’s Careers team has talked to more experts and has published a toolkit for researchers on how they can protect themselves from abuse and threats (see Nature 609, 205–207; 2022).
The advice includes relatively simple technological fixes for individuals, including turning off commenting and direct messaging on social-media platforms such as Twitter, setting up two-factor authentication on all accounts and using a password manager to generate strong passwords to reduce the risk of accounts being hacked.
But our toolkit includes important advice for institutions, too. For example, they should remove researchers’ contact details from websites at the first sign of harassment, which can involve publicly available contact details being used to bombard people with threatening messages and phone calls. Universities can also provide expert help, including having dedicated staff on hand to give advice or screen messages. And they can connect people with colleagues who have themselves experienced harassment and can provide support.
Institutions must also actively defend staff and issue clear statements supporting colleagues. Researchers report finding such acts empowering, because it reassures them that bodies with power are looking out for them. “You feel like you have a safety net,” says Evita March, a psychologist at Federation University Australia in Melbourne.
Researchers know that their work is always open to question and challenge — that, after all, is how science progresses. But there’s no place for threats in science. That means that those who have the power to protect scientists must do more to exercise it.