Scientists have played an increasingly public role during the pandemic. They have provided a service appearing on TV, radio and giving quotes to various news media, sharing their valuable expertise on virology, epidemiology, vaccines and more. This is often done unpaid and in their own time.

After the uncertainties plaguing the start of the pandemic, many of us have taken to looking to scientists as a voice of reason, counting on them to present the facts, draw logical conclusions and explain concepts we don’t fully understand such as R numbers and mRNA technology. At times they deliver news they know won’t be popular, which unfortunately leaves them susceptible to verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse on and offline.

Abuse is not uncommon

A recent survey conducted by Nature (an idea first explored by the Australian Science Media Centre in Adelaide) asked scientists who have publicly spoken about COVID-19 whether they have experienced abuse. The findings present an alarming picture of what researchers have to contend with, should they contribute to discussions relevant to their work. Though this particular survey was based around scientists working on COVID-19, there are of course other fields of work that attract this sort of response, such as climate science.

Of academics in the UK who have spoken publicly about their work in relation to COVID-19:

  • Respondents most frequently see attacks on their credibility (59%)
  • More than 1 in 5 received threats of physical or sexual violence and 14% reported receiving death threats
  • Over half (54%) of respondents received more than one type of abuse*, only 26% reported not being subjected to any abuse
  • The survey findings showed no significant difference in the abuse received by men and women**

*Types of abuse detailed in the survey are: death threats; threats of physical or sexual violence; attacks on credibility; reputational damage; and emotional or psychological distress.

**Across the international dataset

Do some suffer more?

Although analysis of the data suggests no significant difference between abuse aimed at men versus women, it may be appropriate to take a more anecdotal approach to truly understand how this affects people of different backgrounds. Misogyny, racism and prejudice against other characteristics, protected or otherwise, underpin many threats and abusive comments made on social media.

One respondent was certainly aware of this, stating:

“I am a Caucasian male, and thus no doubt my demographic profile means I get less abuse than a female ethnic minority with exactly the same viewpoint.”

Another respondent alluded to the makeup of the scientific community itself being a problem for women speaking up after being targeted by abuse:

“In my experience women scientists put ourselves forward because we want to help communicate science. It is not about egos, in fact the opposite. The perception is that male colleagues resent this and are unsupportive. This stops women coming forward.”

Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol, Adam Finn, who has recently appeared across TV to comment on rising COVID-19 cases, often gets abusive messages online as well as in the post, which causes concern for him on the safety of his team. He also wonders if women are subjected to more abuse than men.

Professor Susan Michie, Professor of Health Psychology at UCL, has spoken publicly in recent weeks advocating the continued use of face masks in appropriate situations. Her own experience of Twitter abuse has been extreme, resulting in her blocking around 4000 accounts. She knows women scientists who have taken action against more. According to her, the majority of the abuse overtly sexualises the victim or, as seen in the results of the survey, challenges the credibility of the scientist. She says:

“I haven’t heard of male colleagues receiving the level of abuse my female colleagues have. I would like to see more research into the types of abuse that different demographic groups receive.”

It should be noted that not everyone we approached could, or wanted to, comment. And not all those who speak out receive abuse. Michie’s call for more focused research around demographics would be a welcome place to start to gather insights from those from underrepresented backgrounds in science, particularly.

Diversity and representation in science

Earlier this month, it was reported that Black researchers believe science in the UK to be institutionally racist. Those quoted spoke on the lack of Black professors, increased likelihood of Black people studying science as a postgraduate degree leaving without a qualification and a funding system that does not reward Black applicants.

Findings from the APPG on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM find inequity in the education and workforce landscapes. There is considerable underrepresentation of women in the latter and the issues are intersectional, thereby affecting those from minoritised backgrounds – such as disabled people, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities – more. This also affects the perception of scientists in the media. Professor Sarah Rowland-Jones at the University of Oxford observed that more men are showcased by the media as they appear more “authoritative”, further perpetuating a male-dominated sector.

A survey by IPSEN published results earlier this year revealing that over half of 16-to-21-year olds thought of science careers to be unequally accessible to all ethnicities and genders – a worrying outlook from the next generation.

This data paints the picture of an unwelcoming and exclusive sector, upholding the idea that not everyone can ‘do science’. And for those who do go into science professionally? Well, they may experience threatening behaviour if they choose to talk about their work. All in all, science doesn’t seem to be the most attractive prospect.

Supporting scientists

Following the release of the survey results, Nature asked what should be done to prevent researchers’ exposure to abuse and threats. Surprisingly few suggested social media companies enact changes – perhaps because this seems unfeasible considering how politicised the issue has become – but many called on their institutions to play a role in protecting their employees, as well as peer support.

Professor Finn benefits from a “very good spam filter” which limits the amount of abuse entering his main inbox. This is something that can be implemented with relative ease. It may also be useful for institutions to reinforce the importance and value of science engagement. Sharing how they, and the wider research community, can support those who choose to give comment publicly may provide a sense of security in their staff.

The UK Science Media Centre (SMC), an independent press office bridging the gap between science reporters and scientists to ensure accurate reporting, has produced a useful online resource for scientists experiencing abuse. They’re currently looking for other ways to advise scientists in this boat. In the written responses to the survey, there were numerous comments praising their active role standing with researchers who are speaking on the record. There is a network of SMCs globally, who dedicate themselves to fostering trust in science and helping the scientists doing this.

Keeping science ‘open’

At the BSA we believe science should represent our society and there is still a way to go before science is as diverse as it should be. There is a danger that this sort of abuse, coupled with hostile environments that don’t prioritise the wellbeing and safety of its workers, deepens the divide between science and wider society. We risk having fewer scientists in the public eye when, going forward, having more (and more diverse) voices is imperative to tackling future pandemics, the climate emergency and other unknown crises. For science to benefit society, those ‘doing’ science need to feel confident engaging with the public.

Ultimately, we’re grateful for the hard work those in the science community do and we truly appreciate the time taken to tweet a response to new Government guidance, undertake an interview on the evening news, accept an invitation to speak at an event or provide a quote for a front-page article. We hope this terrible abuse does not prevent scientists who currently, or plan to, share their hard work and expertise with the public.

Click here to view the SMC’s Advice for researchers experiencing harassment