Portraits in prison clothing, loud insults, death threats on the Internet – during the Covid-19 pandemic, prominent virologists like Christian Drosten were repeatedly attacked and threatened. But these were not isolated cases in a heated, exceptional situation. Researchers from a wide range of disciplines in Germany have been attacked in various ways for a long time.

This is proven by the first representative survey among German researchers conducted at the German Center for Higher Education

Research results were debated publicly, especially during the corona pandemic, which increased tensions, according to the study. Especially when scientific results served as the basis for socially and politically controversial decisions. “The anger over these political decisions or the feeling that one’s own human options for action are being limited can then also be reflected in attacks against researchers,” says Clemens Blümel, who led the survey as a researcher at the DZHW.

“The results of the survey of a total of 2,600 scientists show that hostility towards researchers is a problem that needs to be taken seriously,” said Blümel. “The attacks don’t always come from outside. There is also hostility and derogatory behavior within science itself.”

It’s not just virologists who are being targeted massively. Doctors, biologists and humanities scholars also often experience insults and threats.

Very often the competence of the researchers is questioned or the research results are belittled and maligned. Hostile statements are often openly discriminatory, racist and sexist. Women find themselves in the firing line far more often than men.

The insults and threats take place primarily on social networks and digital channels. But sometimes researchers are also attacked in everyday life, on the street or in the office. Often, however, it remains just verbal attacks. Damage to property or even physical attacks have so far only occurred very rarely. However, in 17 percent of the hostilities there was also a threat of physical violence.

According to the survey, populist campaigns, hate speech and death threats have led to some researchers withdrawing from public communication or no longer working on controversial topics.

“Critical discourses are of course something different than hostility and discrediting campaigns. However, the latter can lead to self-censorship among researchers. In the worst case, under great pressure, research on important topics is no longer carried out, for example in the area of ​​climate change,” says project leader Nataliia Sokolovska.

In some cases, the perpetrators have achieved their goal: they have damaged the reputation of researchers, silenced unwanted researchers and prevented disruptive research.

The project consortium therefore wants to develop measures to better protect researchers against attacks. These include nationwide advice centers for researchers in the event of specific hostilities, guidelines for crisis situations and practical communication training.

The study shows very clearly that there is a lot of catching up to do, especially when it comes to communication. In this context, it is important that decisions are made very consciously about what is conveyed and how. According to Blümel, this also includes making it clear that the scientific process is also characterized by imponderables and uncertainties. Errors also need to be communicated and, overall, a “realistic picture of scientific practice” needs to be drawn, says Blümel.

Author: Alexander Freund

The original for this article “From insults to death threats: many researchers face hostility” comes from Deutsche Welle.