Keeping scientists safe: election season matters for two reasons

8 Sep 2023 14:00 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Since the 2016 US Presidential election, it has been apparent elections can play a pivotal role in the deterioration of the information space where our societies consider the most important issue. In Aotearoa, the election matters for two reasons. The first is that elections may focus risks on issues such as climate change and aftermath of the suite of issues raised by the protests on Parliament's lawn. The second is that you, as a scientist or researcher, might want to consider removing your name and address from the published electoral role if having this information easily available to the public may put you at risk. (If so, read on and do this now!)

Our 2022 Conference featured a session* where we compared the experience within research institutions versus journalism in keeping people safe when speaking out about important issues, as well as the mis- and dis-information that has increasingly become a threat. 

We came away determined to implement key steps journalists have taken more successfully than research institutions to protect personal safety for those who may be speaking or writing publicly and attracting attention that can shift from mis- and dis-information to personal threats and attacks.

The most universal step those concerned can take is removing their name and address from the published electoral role. The process is explained here, and we have become aware that employers and other authorities may be confused by the requirement for a letter of support. 

This is explained here, and we are able to provide a letter for members who meet the criteria. (We've been advised you can email us your application for us to submit with an our letter for expedited processing.)  We also provide our template here for employers and other institutions to use.

We have recently become aware of a deadline of Sunday 10 September for the provisional processing of applications.

Please note that going on the unpublished role means your voting process will be akin to filing a special vote, since your name and address won't appear to be crossed off.

The application must be accompanied by or followed by a letter of support like the one above, outlining a basis for risk that is not simply a request for privacy. It can be from an employer or a body like NZAS but cannot be signed by the individual requesting their name be removed from the electoral role.

More broadly, we aim to provide support for scientists engaged in public issues and engaged with media and social media as they do so in the era of increasing mis- and dis-information.  Let's begin by getting a better understanding of that a major change in risk has been observed since 2020, and is resulting in unprecedented levels of personal threats, including death threats, against scientists and researchers. These threats increasingly appear to be coordinated and designed to dissuade public engagement of experts in providing information of value to the public and countering mis- and dis-information. 

Our Association plays an important, independent role in these actions. Evidence for the step change in the information environment, the magnitude of threats in general, and those directed at scientists, researchers and experts includes:

The most important awareness arising from these sources is the need to keep experts engaged on public issues safe by proactively removing information such as their residential address from general access on sources including the Electoral Roll. Existing cases of threats to individual experts and understanding of the speed of disinformation emphasise that it is too late to do so as threats are beginning to occur or are observed to be escalating. 

Another place where names can be matched to addresses is the companies register. This and similar risks can be ameliorated by employers allowing the use of work address for the appropriate mail that may not directly be affiliated with formal roles.

An imporatant step we are working on is understanding how it may be possible to help navigate the many workplace policies that help to keep public facing scientists and communicators safe.

A final step that we can suggest but can't help with in detail is considering your home and personal security.

In closing, it is important to note that these steps may seem to you, your employer, or others as if they are overkill, until they needed. If that day comes, an ounce prevention is worth a tonne of cure.

*The session was unadvertised to assist in protecting the safety of the in-person panellists Kate Hannah and Marc Daalder. We thank them for sharing their knowledge and experience!

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