Editors of the highly influential science journal Nature on Wednesday decried harassment of scientists who speak about COVID-19, saying “intimidation is unacceptable on any scale.”
The journal, in an editorial posted online, called for “institutions at all levels” to “do more to protect and defend scientists.”
“Threats are being made against researchers all over the world, by both individuals and organized anti-science or anti-vaccination campaigns,” the journal said, calling for “more support, protection and training for scientists in the public eye.”
“Clear, accurate public communication from scientists is essential in a pandemic,” said the editorial, which accompanied a news article on the harassment. And if researchers are discouraged from contributing to public discussion, it “would be a huge loss.”
Scientists applauded the journal’s stand on social media.
“I reiterate what many have said: attacks against scientists and public health experts (and their families) are not acceptable,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead, tweeted Thursday.
Joseph Allen, an associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, recounted his own experience and tweeted Thursday, “Every other scientist I know has experienced similar, or worse. Women more so.”
It’s been shameful. I’ve been targeted repeatedly (and one time my family members were tracked down to get to me…). Every other scientist I know has experienced similar, or worse. Women more so. Some have left public arena bc of it, and we’re all worse off for it. https://t.co/AW2STk0DWZ— Joseph Allen (@j_g_allen) October 14, 2021
The journal’s news article included results of a survey it sent out to scientists. Of the 321 respondents, who hailed mainly from the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, more than two-thirds reported negative experiences after media appearances or online comments.
Twenty-two percent received threats of physical or sexual violence, and 15 percent received death threats. Six of the scientists reported being physically attacked.
“I believe national governments, funding agencies and scientific societies have not done enough to publicly defend scientists,” one researcher wrote in their survey response, according to the article.
One high-profile scientist who was harassed, the article noted, was Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who had to be assigned bodyguards after he and his family were threatened.
The editors of the journal said, “Scientists and health officials should expect their research to be questioned and challenged, and should welcome critical feedback that is given in good faith. But threats of violence and extreme online abuse do nothing to encourage debate — and risk undermining science communication at a time when it has never mattered more.”
Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist who is a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif. and comments on COVID-19 on Twitter, tweeted Wednesday that it was an “important editorial ... in case anyone thinks it’s straightforward and easy to communicate science during the pandemic.”
Important editorial @nature on scientists being attacked and what needs to be done about ithttps://t.co/Vyu9mCZTwLhttps://t.co/QHpqac293q— Eric Topol (@EricTopol) October 13, 2021
in case anyone thinks it's straightforward and easy to communicate science during the pandemic pic.twitter.com/1DiblDuWwH
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease physician at the World Health Organization who was interviewed for the article, thanked the journal on Twitter for shedding light on the issue, saying she was “not prepared for the onslaught of harassment and it affected me deeply.”
#COVID19 has changed many things- one has been the way the public interacts with scientists.— Krutika Kuppalli, MD FIDSA (@KrutikaKuppalli) October 13, 2021
Like many of my colleagues I was not prepared for the onslaught of harassment and it affected me deeply.
Thanks to @Nature for telling our stories https://t.co/PiVCREyc8A
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.