Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
17 July 2024

Science
& Education

Safety measures for threatened scientists

In the past year, security measures were taken for 59 scientists on account of the hate and threats they receive. The interventions range from extra security personnel on campus to taking contact details offline.

For 45 employees of universities, it concerned one-time measures, whereas for fourteen others they are structural. These are the results of the first monitor of external harassment, hate and threats towards scientists, which appeared today.

Measures by the institutions include taking the contact details of researchers under threat offline, introducing card checks for certain buildings, moving the employee to a different location, and filtering all of the hate and threats out of emails. They also help the employees file the police report. Furthermore, sometimes there’s a need for extra security personnel on campus or at public gatherings.

“Such measures have major personal consequences for our employees and also for their families, friends and colleagues”, writes umbrella organisation Universities of the Netherlands, which also draws attention to the consequences for society: “When scientists no longer dare to get involved in the public debate, via media, social media or in other ways, one of the most important voices in that debate disappears.”

Covid

The safety of scientists has been the focus of attention ever since virologists received serious threats during the Covid pandemic. Extremists often also target scientists who express their views on migration or climate change in the media. Criticising the political Islam isn’t without danger either.

The monitor doesn’t state any names or concrete examples. It also doesn’t say which universities or institutes have zero scientists who are receiving threats or, conversely, which of them have more.

Universities and institutes do see a “growth of activism in society” and this has an impact on scientific education and research. Security personnel also observe a ‘blurring of moral standards’: extreme reactions are becoming increasingly normal.

This does, indeed, mean that some researchers are “more reluctant to publicly communicate about their work”, reads the report. According to the institutions, it is mainly women and young researchers who are faced with hate, threats and harassment. Science asked for attention to be paid to this on previous occasions.

Self-censorship

Earlier this year, it turned out that there is in fact a significant minority of teachers and students that applies self-censorship. Numbers did vary per scientific field.

To support scientists, a special website was launched in November 2022: wetenschapveilig.nl. This puts threatened scientists directly in touch with the right people within their institutions.

Up to December 2023, a few dozen scientists had sought help through this website, but there are plenty who don’t use it. The universities feel like it’s just the “tip of the iceberg”.

Worldwide

The monitor was created by Universities of the Netherlands and Technopolis research agency. The universities, research funding body NWO and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) answered questions.

“In this context, it should be noted that the protests on the campuses were yet to start or were still in their infancy at that time”, reads the monitor. “The impact of this on employees has therefore not been taken into account in this monitor.”

Incidentally, the safety of scientists is under pressure worldwide, various sources report. Outgoing minister Robbert Dijkgraaf felt that more attention should be paid to this in the Netherlands as well.

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