Why Dutch universities are stepping up support for academics facing threats and intimidation

Why Dutch universities are stepping up support for academics facing threats and intimidation

Why Dutch universities are stepping up support for academics facing threats and intimidation

Many researchers are steering clear of radio discussions and talk shows to avoid the risk of subsequent abuse online.Credit: Getty

Willemijn Lamet is a criminologist and psychologist who advises on security policy at Universities of the Netherlands (UNL), an association that represents 14 Dutch universities. Here, she explains the rationale behind SafeScience, an online platform that supports scientists who face threats or intimidation.

How did SafeScience come about and what was your role in it?

I advise on how UNL can help to make universities a safer place to work in. I have three areas of interest: social safety; how we protect data and employees from foreign interference; and cybersecurity.

It developed in two stages. Initially, we wanted to share best practice in dealing with online and other forms of threats and harassment, so we developed guidelines for all 14 universities to follow. These were launched in October 2021 and were intended to help not only the researchers, but also the employers, to deal with what was becoming a daily practice.

The actual website, known in the Netherlands as WetenschapVeilig, was launched in November 2022, with an emergency number to call. As far as I know, it’s the first national website of its kind. It’s open to all scientists and researchers employed at the 14 Dutch universities and institutes affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences or the Dutch Research Council. We learnt a lot from a similar hotline, PressSafe, that was launched for journalists in 2020, also in the Netherlands.

What spurred the guidelines?

About two months before my start at UNL in May 2021, Leiden University historian Nadia Bouras, who does research on migration, found a sticker put on the front door of her house that effectively read: “We are watching you.” She had simply gone out with her family to the forest, and when she came back it was there.

This intimidation was not specifically linked to any of her Twitter messages, but she does post frequently about diversity, everyday racism and similar issues that might be considered ‘woke’.

She tweeted about the threat, gaining media attention. Ineke Sluiter, a classics scholar at Leiden University (and at the time president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences) made a call to UNL about what it was doing to help and protect people from online harassment.

After the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the threats online became more intimidating and more common — especially for COVID-19 researchers, but also for those in other fields.

The rectors of the universities at UNL decided that they had to make a statement against hate and intimidating behaviour, and discussed things that could be done to protect their employees, especially the ones who speak out in public debate.

Everyone recognized the same theme in all layers of their organization and for all types of staff, such as diversity officers, because many are subject to the same sort of hate speech.

In my first week, another researcher was threatened. She received hateful and threatening comments on Twitter. For her, it was just ‘what happens’, basically, but it was an extra reason to work on guidelines.

What was the worst case of intimidation you heard about?

I spoke to Afshin Ellian, a specialist in jurisprudence at Leiden University who is an Iranian–Dutch academic, philosopher, poet, columnist and critic of political Islam. He has been under 24/7 police protection for years because the death threats made against him for speaking out have been so concrete and so serious.

Doxing — making home addresses or telephone numbers public, as happened to Bouras — is one of the most intimidating ways of threatening researchers. She was one of several academics and politicians who had been targeted in this way.

What’s at the other end of the spectrum?

Quite a few researchers decide not to take part in radio discussions or talk shows on television. They are busy with work and don’t want to have to deal with this extra element. They have just stopped talking in public.

Then there are basic researchers, such as me, who just get a couple of comments but still find it intimidating and not very nice to read — it’s discouraging. As a researcher, you try to do well and be someone whose expertise is worth something.

But the many researchers I have spoken to who have received threats, no matter their field or the content of their posts, all feel the same: they felt consequences in terms of their ability to focus and work.

Why were the guidelines not enough on their own?

We felt that we needed something more. What struck me most in my interviews was that it wasn’t always clear where people could go for help. Or they didn’t know that what they were facing was something they could ask for help with — it was seen as part of the job.

So, I and my UNL colleague Tycho Wassenaar started working on the SafeScience project. Tycho had previously been responsible for coordinating activities and projects relating to teacher-training programmes and academic-teaching policy, but from summer 2022 he devoted himself to our project. We put so much effort into it, making sure that everything was covered and that all the institutions involved understood that they had a duty to respond in one working day to any researcher who asked for help. This year, we will be working with a project leader to build expertise and share knowledge.

What can scientists do now if they feel threatened?

There’s a hotline, with the number to call on the main page of the website, if there’s an incident and someone needs immediate assistance, even if it’s just to help them decide how serious it is and what they could do next. It’s answered by a safety consultant employed by a specialist company, working 24/7.

There’s also a web form that people can use to report an incident if they want some advice or help, but not urgently.

What’s been the response so far?

SafeScience was launched in November 2022. Since then, we’ve had 15 reports through the website, and at least 6 complaints that have been made directly to different universities are clearly related to the launch of SafeScience.

We expect there to be more, because every time an incident makes the headlines, a number of new ones occur. We based this expectation on the journalists’ hotline, which is two years ahead of us: we learnt a lot of lessons from it.

How have you dealt with the cases reported so far?

It totally depends on the actual incident, but our response ranges from a phone call, asking ‘How are you feeling and what do you need?’, to potentially having contact with the police. That hasn’t happened yet, but the Dutch police have been very supportive of our efforts.

How do you involve people’s managers? What role can they have?

When someone uses the hotline or website, the enquiries are also directed to their manager at the relevant university.

If that manager responds in an emphatic manner, it makes all the difference in the world. If you’re a very busy manager, and you see this as just an extra task, I would say: “Well, it’s just a matter of being empathetic to your people. You’re there to work anyway — it’s not too much to ask.”

All universities have experience with various kinds of threat. But luckily, most institutions will have no experience with the very serious type that involves realistic threats to physical safety. Such threats are rare, but if they do occur, it’s possible to learn from other institutions that have been in the same situation. It helps that all universities and research institutions are aware that they need to have a policy in place to support their employees.

How common is physical intimidation?

Fortunately, it’s less common than online intimidation, but it might come up when carrying out fieldwork. As a researcher, you might be confronted with people who don’t agree with what you’re doing, or who don’t want you to carry out your work as planned.

For example, two researchers went into a street in The Hague with a questionnaire and tried to ask several people about their views on safety in the neighbourhood; they were chased out of the street by a couple of young teenagers. It was all quite intimidating.

Did you ever experience intimidation earlier in your career?

I was a psychologist and criminologist with an interest in social networks, and I researched feelings of safety and victimization, including in prisons and probation services.

Sometimes, I tweeted about prison sentences and their severity in the Netherlands compared with in other countries. I got some negative reactions, some of which were quite hateful.

They said that I was stupid, that I was a useless researcher, and that it was pointless research. After reading a couple of these posts, I thought: “Well, Twitter is not the medium for me to talk about my research.” So, I deleted my scientific account. I never really thought about it again until I started setting up SafeScience. About three years ago, I created a new account, which at first was anonymous. I hardly ever comment, but I do use it to follow scientists, and also journalists.

What does success look like for SafeScience?

What I want most is for no one to be threatened again! Apart from that, I want to raise awareness about this problem, and especially about how it affects individual researchers and their willingness to share their knowledge.

I want researchers to know that their employers are committed to helping them, and that their direct managers can no longer say: “It’s just part of your job.” That’s my best wish.

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