Universities stand behind their scientists and will no longer tolerate intimidation. They want to make this clear with a new handout that university association VSNU presented yesterday. ‘It is scandalous what people think they can say to you.’
Intimidation and threats have no place in the work of a scientist. Period. That is the tenor of the document signed by all fourteen rectors of Dutch universities. If it does happen, the universities will report it to the police. Employees will be offered psychological help and there will be a national contact point where reports of intimidation and threats will be registered.
Although the agreements in the handout are not entirely out of the blue, Professor of Political Science Sarah de Lange is pleased with them. Unfortunately, she has experience with threats: after an attack by the far-right platform Vizier op Links, she received hate mail for days and trolls tried to hijack her social media accounts.
‘It’s progress that such threats are now being addressed by all universities. Of course, some universities and research institutions had already taken measures against harassment, but such a common agenda shows that the problem is taken seriously,’ says De Lange. For a long time this was not the case, she says.
‘Over the past two years, such scare tactics has become much more commonplace in science. There are hate platforms such as Vizier op Links, but the covid pandemic has made it even worse. That ahs also made such collaboration much more urgent.’
Her colleague Roland Pierik, associate professor in legal philosophy, knows all about it. ‘About five years ago I was doing research on vaccinations in children, and I was threatened after I spoke about it in the media. Then I noticed that both the UvA and the police didn’t really know how to deal with it. Threatening scientists via social media was relatively new,’ he says. ‘I can imagine that the police, who normally deal with murder cases, thought: what should I do with this? The fact that this report is now available shows that universities want to speak out and show that they support their scientists.’
The support of both colleagues and the university has been very important to her this spring, says De Lange. ‘I had the feeling that I was not alone. And that’s the way it should be, the university should support you in doing your job, because that’s actually what you do when you speak out as a scientist in the public debate.’
Pierik had traveled to The Hague together with scholars Afshin Ellian and Aya Azawa (both Leiden University) to receive the handout in person from Minister Van Engelshoven. ‘It was a pleasant afternoon. I spoke briefly with the minister about the subject. The difference between her as a minister and me as a scientist is that I get all the hate mails unfiltered. A minister has a staff who filter the mails for her. That’s why it's good that the handout is there now, as support.’ Pierik thinks the hate mails he receives aren’t the worst. ‘For female scientists it is even worse. They have to deal with rape fantasies.’
Pierik advises young colleagues to consider whether they want to be visible in the media. ‘You know that if you do that, you'll get a lot of abuse. There are a lot of bullies on Twitter, just like in elementary school.’
De Lange does not entirely agree. ‘Of course it’s good to think about it, but it shouldn’t really matter whether or not you get involved in the public debate as a scientist. When scientists withdraw from the public arena, the debate narrows. Then the loudest shouters get the most space, instead of the people with the most knowledge, and that seems very undesirable to me.’