The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine recently held the event Beyond the Pandemic: Addressing Attacks on Researchers and Health Professionals and invited a panel to discuss their experiences facing threats and attacks due to their areas of research. These attacks ranged from physical threats to their safety to cyberattacks to their places of work. Having recently launched their proceedings from the National Academies’ Committee on Human Rights series on the scope of this issue since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this event provided helpful solutions and resources for  researchers, clinicians, and scientists alike.

The speakers, Michelle Morse, Johanna Chao Kreilick, and Tara Kirk Sell shared their perspectives on this growing issue.

Dr. Michelle Morse is currently the chief medical officer and deputy commissioner of the Center for Health Equity and Community Wellness in the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and spoke on her own experiences facing coordinated attacks by white supremacist groups given her anti-racism and health equity work. Her research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital uncovered measurable disparities in heart failure readmissions for Black and Brown patients as compared to White patients. This led to a reckoning within cardiology care and the creation of the Healing ARC framework aimed at addressing these inequities. Unfortunately, this also brought the attention of white supremacist groups, who descended on Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the form of protests and communication attacks.

Dr. Morse shared her advice for navigating threatening events:

  1. Train your communications team at your institution in equity as well as the types of propaganda tactics used by hate groups. They are the first group intercepting these communication attacks via phone, email, website, etc. and can otherwise be overwhelmed if unprepared.
  2. Consider hiring a crisis communication firm with experience in health equity to help with fielding the attacks and their blowback.
  3. Be very proactive in your communications about your institution’s values and equity work to counter the narrative of the attackers. This can counter the “chilling” effect these groups are trying to have.
  4. Get trained on the security protocols for your institution and yourself as their employee.  Know where to go in case of a physical threat, and what resources you have available when threatened.
  5. Use a service, such as DeleteMe or OneRep, to scrub your personal information from the internet.

Ms. Johanna Chao Kreilick is the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and works to advocate for scientists in all fields that face bullying and harassment. She spoke on the need for a better understanding of our society’s fear of science as it is counterintuitive to how necessary scientific developments are. Her background in climate research has made her very familiar with being a target for intimidation tactics and due to this, she has worked with the Biden administration to fortify scientific integrity. The UCS continues to combat misinformation and advocate for scientists through their Science Network, an association of people within and around the scientific community working to empower each other in their advocacy efforts.  

Ms. Kreilick also highlighted a recent report the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Center for Science and Democracy released, Science in an Age of Scrutiny. This resource contains helpful checklists and potential harassment scenarios scientists may face and how to respond to them. For example, UCS details what to do if an organization tries to demand your private information, likely through a subpoena or open-records request, and how to seek legal counsel to protect yourself through these efforts of intimidation.

Dr. Tara Kirk Sell is an Associate Professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health within their Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Her research focuses on the harassment faced by public health researchers, particularly COVID-19 researchers, and what institutions can improve upon to support their research faculty and staff. The Bloomberg School of Public Health created a Report and Response System to not only support people, but also take the onus off the researcher to deal with the threats received. This new system has been effective at helping faculty through what will likely continue to be an issue in coming years.

Dr. Kirk Sell urged academic institutions to conduct trainings for their public health faculty, staff, and students on how to deal with harassment and communicate information clearly with outside communities. Battling disinformation requires those in academic institutions to leave their ivory tower and collaborate more closely with those who feel the most disconnected from understanding public health evidence.

While doing this, we must also build trust within our communities, so that the information we are trying to disseminate is better received. Dr. Morse emphasized the importance of being present in marginalized communities, investing time and money into these communities, offering resources in their preferred languages, and working closely with community-based organizations.

In order to better support researchers facing these threats and recover from the possible resulting burnout, more efforts need to be made to work together and leave our silos within our institutions. While this is incredibly challenging, there are organizations with existing platforms for coordination creating spaces for dialogue and building networks of solidarity. Despite the strife faced by many scientists trying to do transformative research, there is hope that we as a community can get through this together.

Helpful resources from this webcast linked here.

Julie Ressalam, M.P.H.

Doctoral Student - University of Colorado School of Public Health

Julie Ressalam is AcademyHealth’s Spring 2023 Health Policy Fellow Read Bio

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