When scientists engage in public advocacy, or indeed in any public comment on controversial issues, there is a risk they will come under attack. To reduce the possibility of reprisals, it is worthwhile preparing, in several ways, including learning from the experience of others and making mild comments to see the reaction. If there is a serious risk, reducing expenditures and transferring assets can provide extra financial security. Building networks for personal support is crucially important, including family and friends, work colleagues and various others. When coming under attack, it is important to document actions, seek advice and behave sensibly. The most powerful counter to attacks is mobilisation of support. It is important to support scientists who come under attack, as this protects scientific freedom for all.


In the early 1970s, Richard and Val Routley (1973) wrote a pioneering book, The Fight for the Forests, that gave a comprehensive critique of Australian forestry theory and practice. Richard Routley was at the time a tenured member of the Philosophy Department at the Australian National University and, as such, was relatively invulnerable to direct attack. His wife, philosopher Val Routley, had no paid job. Three editions of Fight for the Forests were published through the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS). Opponents of the book put pressure on RSSS to block publication by a request for vetting by the Forestry Department at ANU. Richard Routley was banned from the Forestry Department library for six months (Routley and Plumwood 1986). Later, when these censorship efforts were publicised, the head of the Forestry Department denied there had been any ban, though Richard Routley’s research assistants, who used the library on his behalf, confirmed it (Martin 1997: 106).

In 1971, Clyde Manwell, newly appointed professor of zoology at the University of Adelaide, wrote a letter to the Adelaide Advertiser questioning aspects of the state government’s programme of spraying for fruit fly. The letter, jointly authored by Manwell’s wife, Ann Baker, was sent from their private address; the editor added Manwell’s university affiliation. This letter led to comment in state parliament. The university’s senior professor of zoology, H. G. Andrewartha, wrote a letter of complaint to the university’s vice-chancellor, and this led to efforts to have Manwell dismissed. The following four years featured investigations, media commentary, court cases and student protests, before all the charges against Manwell were finally dismissed (Baker 1986).
These are two instances in which public advocacy on environmental issues led to adverse actions against the individuals speaking out. There are numerous such documented cases concerning forestry, nuclear power, pesticides and other issues (Delborne 2008; Deyo et al. 1997; Lewis 2014; Martin 1999; Moran 1998). Furthermore, the documented cases are undoubtedly a small proportion of the total number of cases, because relatively few are publicised beyond the few people directly involved.
The methods used against targets include censorship of talks and articles, denying grant applications, restricting access to research materials, rejecting job applications, denying tenure, ostracism, circulation of derogatory rumours, dismissal and blacklisting. These and other methods can be classified into a few general categories: censorship; attacking reputations; and hindering careers.
The most common scenario for attacks operates like this. Someone does research or teaching or speaks out on a topic and poses a threat to the interests of powerful groups, typically government or industry. As a result, reprisals are visited on the individual. Whatever the effect on the target, attacks send a strong message to others about the risks of challenging dominant interests. This can be called the chilling effect, to use an expression commonly applied in relation to the media (Barendt et al., 1997).
Advocacy is a frequent trigger for reprisals, but sometimes scientists are attacked just for doing research. A scientist can undertake research on a sensitive topic, for example the effects of atrazine on frogs (Aviv 2014), and publish in scientific journals. If no one pays any attention to the articles, the researcher may be able to continue unhindered. But if others, for example environmental groups, publicise the articles in their campaigning, then the scientist may become a target.
Therefore it is convenient to distinguish between two types of advocacy. When a scientist speaks out, taking a public stand on an issue of social importance, this is overt advocacy. When a scientist only does technical research and publishes in scholarly forums, and triggers opposition, this can be called inadvertent advocacy. It is advocacy purely by the choice of topic and the findings, without any attempt to make public comment.
By convention, the label “advocacy” is applied to those who challenge conventional wisdom or who challenge powerful groups. In contrast, those who support orthodoxy present themselves, and are commonly seen, as having views based on science. However, those who speak in defence of orthodox views should be recognised as advocates just as much as those who criticise orthodox views. When scientists disagree, it is common for them to attribute their own views to evidence and logic and to attribute contrary views to contingent factors such as prejudice and conflict of interest (Mulkay and Gilbert 1982).
It is far more likely for those who challenge the dominant view to come under attack. This is predictable when the dominant scientific view coincides with the most powerful players in the issue. For example, the dominant scientific view about pesticides is that they are safe and beneficial, coinciding with the interests of pesticide manufacturers. The one major exception to this configuration is the climate change debate, in which the dominant scientific view, that global warming is occurring and mostly due to human activities, is contrary to the interests of fossil fuel companies.
Even for scientists who avoid advocacy themselves and who are unlikely to ever be attacked, it is worthwhile understanding what is at stake. Over the course of a career, a colleague at one’s workplace or in one’s field of study may be targeted. One option is to say this is none of your business and let the targeted scientist deal with the problem. When nearly all scientists adopt this sort of bystander role, the few scientists under attack stand little chance of survival and the result may be a contraction of scientific freedom for all. On the other hand, if even a few colleagues provide support for a targeted dissident, this can make a huge difference psychologically and practically. Collective action is the basis for social movements and much beneficial social change. Therefore, the more scientists — whether or not they ever want to become activists — who learn about advocacy, its risks and how to survive attacks, the more prepared the scientific community will be to counter threats to scientific freedom.

There is yet another reason for learning about how to resist attacks: scientists can come under attack for all sorts of reasons aside from advocacy. Scientists sometimes can be targeted because of their background, appearance, mannerisms, ethnicity or a host of other characteristics; they may run up against a bullying boss; or they may be caught in the crossfire during a conflict in which they are not involved. Many of the same methods helpful to those involved in advocacy are relevant to scientists targeted for other reasons.

In the following sections, I present suggestions for scientists who want to prepare for and deter attacks on them due to their advocacy. The next section, on preparation, looks at ways to estimate the likely responses to advocacy. The following sections address financial preparation and building personal support. Sometimes, despite preparation, advocates come under attack. I describe standard advice for dealing with attacks, including the options of using official channels and mobilising support.

This advice is based on my studies of suppression of dissent in science (e.g., Martin 1981, 1999, 2008; Martin et al. 1986), supplemented by my contact with dissident scientists. Related to this, I have talked with hundreds of whistleblowers in a range of occupations (police, teachers, public servants, corporate employees and others). The methods of attack are much the same, and most of the lessons from the experiences of whistleblowers (Martin, 2013) are relevant to scientists who come under attack. Because the patterns are so similar in different fields, I offer only a few examples here. Nearly every case of suppression of dissent is an incredibly complicated saga, with contested claims about who did what and why, so a one-paragraph summary cannot begin to capture its complexity. The summaries of two cases at the beginning of this article are designed to highlight a few salient features of suppression cases. Current cases in conservation biology are bound to evoke strong emotions and thus ironically may not be the most effective way to convey general lessons.

Source: Pacific Conservation Biology, vol. 25, no. 1, 2019, pp. 105-110; https://doi.org/10.1071/PC17015