Letter to a dissident scientist

Brian Martin

Department of Science and Technology Studies

University of Wollongong, NSW 2522, Australia


Brian Martin is a senior lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Wollongong. He has a BA in physics from Rice University and a PhD in theoretical physics from Sydney University. He is the author of several books and over 100 papers in a variety of fields, including numerical methods, astrophysics, wind power, science and society, peace, and democracy. He was co-founder of the Network for Intellectual Dissent in Australia and is national president of Whistleblowers Australia.

Thanks for your phone call. I know the attacks you've experienced in the past few months must be highly distressing. To me they sound quite familiar. There's a standard set of ways for attacking dissidents. Methods include denial of tenure, blocking publications, withdrawal of research grants, official reprimands, referral to psychiatrists, ostracism by colleagues, spreading of rumors, transfer to different locations or jobs, and dismissal.

Inevitably, the justification for such attacks is poor performance or some other inadequacy. At this stage, many scientists are all too ready to blame themselves. But, at least in some cases, they are the victims of suppression of dissent.

Anyone who does something that threatens a powerful individual or group is potentially a target of suppression. The classic case is the whistleblower, who speaks out about corruption or dangers to public health, for example accusing a senior colleague of scientific fraud or pointing out the danger of a chemical produced by one's employer.

But there are many other victims of suppression who wouldn't qualify as whistleblowers. You may be victimized even if you don't speak out and even if you don't work for an organization. Anyone who threatens an established practice or policy backed by powerful interests is vulnerable to attack. This includes doing unwelcome research or providing unwelcome policy advice--unwelcome to powerful groups--or questioning appointments made by an insider clique.

Earlier in my career, I would have been as shocked as you are by what has happened to you. It was in 1979 that I began investigating and writing about suppression of intellectual dissent. I was then an applied mathematician interested in environmental issues, and I discovered a pattern of suppression of environmental scientists. The more I looked into the issue, the more cases showed up. Then, after publishing articles about suppression, even more cases were brought to my attention. Initially I hadn't even thought of suppression as a problem in science. Now I realize that it is pervasive. Although each case has its own peculiarities, there are regularly recurring features of suppression cases.

Over the years, I've received lots of letters and phone calls like yours. As I've gained more experience and done more studies, I now usually give the same sort of advice each time. It's not quite the same advice that you might hear from others. Not everyone follows it, either! This long letter is an attempt to summarize the insights I think may be useful to you.

I strongly recommend that you read case studies and analyses of whistleblowing and suppression. They will help you put your own experiences in perspective. I'll attach a bibliography to the end of this letter. For practical purposes, the single most useful source is Courage Without Martyrdom.

Is it suppression?

A good question! There are two main features of suppression cases. First, someone does something--research, teaching or public comment--that threatens a powerful interest group, typically a government, industry, profession, or one's own superiors. Second, there is some attack on the activity or the person. This might be blocking of publication, censorship, blacklisting, disciplinary proceedings, slander, transfer, or dismissal.

A few cases are dramatic. Melvin Reuber, who had done research on pesticides and cancer, was suddenly given a severe reprimand by his boss. The bulk of this reprimand was published in a chemical industry trade magazine and circulated around the world. Margot O'Toole, who persistently raised questions about the work of her superiors--including Nobel Prize winner David Baltimore--was unable to continue a scientific career.

Most cases, by contrast, are much more subtle. Job applications are unsuccessful; publications are rejected; promotion is denied; grant applications are unsuccessful. In most of such cases, it is impossible to know the real reason. It might be a fair decision, it might be suppression, or it might just be bad luck.

There are two simple techniques to help decide whether suppression has occurred. The first is the double standard test. Have other scientists, with the same performance as the one in question, been treated the same way? For example, a researcher might be denied promotion for lack of publications. Were colleagues with the same publication record--but who never refused to add their boss's name to their papers, even though the boss rarely set foot in the lab--also denied promotion? Was the only teacher whose position was declared redundant the one who spoke to the media, criticizing an influential company in the town?

The second technique is to look for patterns of suppression. For example, there are numerous cases of attacks on scientist critics of nuclear power, fluoridation and pesticides. In each case there are powerful interests that are threatened by dissent: government and the nuclear industry in the case of nuclear power, the dental profession in the case of fluoridation, the chemical industry in the case of pesticides.

There is never a final proof that suppression has occurred. But using the double standard test and establishing a pattern of suppression can provide strong circumstantial evidence.

Two key points

Many scientists have a deep, abiding faith in the power of truth. They believe that if people really knew what was going on--about the corruption, the danger to the public, or the attacks on free speech--they would be supportive. They also believe that somewhere there are powerful people who will respond to the truth and ensure that justice is done and seen to be done.

My first important piece of advice may be unpalatable. Don't rely on truth. It's useful but not enough. Certainly don't rely on it to sway the powerful.

Scientists are trained to believe that science is a system of knowledge and that the "marketplace of ideas" will lead to the triumph of truth. This isn't a good model. It's far more useful to treat science as a system of power, in which knowledge plays an important role. Government and industry don't fund research out of altruism: results are expected to be useful, either in a practical or symbolic way. Profits, power, and status are the keys.

Another way to look at this is remember Lord Acton's saying, "power tends to corrupt." Those who have power in science--grant administrators, lab directors, university deans, editors--are liable to use it to advance their own ends and protect themselves from threats.

Most whistleblowers believe in the power of truth. They speak out, believing that the problems they have pointed out will be quickly rectified once people know about them. Occasionally this actually happens. But all too often it is the whistleblower who is seen as the "problem" and who is "rectified."

This does not mean that there is a conscious conspiracy of evil schemers who set out to destroy dissidents. Just the opposite. Those who attack dissent sincerely believe that they are doing the right thing. They see dissenters as incompetent or dangerous because they are questioning a valid procedure or undermining support for an important enterprise. Among those who attack dissent, it just so happens that there is a nice meshing of their beliefs and their self-interest.

Anyone dissenting from powerful groups needs to understand how power operates and to develop a strategy. This brings me to my second important piece of advice: work out your goals. What do you want to achieve?

It may seem unnecessary to spell out goals. Surely they are self-evident: expose and correct the injustice or abuse of power! But seldom is it clear-cut what this means in practice. Does it mean allowing free speech? Penalizing those who suppressed dissent? Exposing the wrong-doing? Obtaining compensation?

You need to sit down and carefully examine what you want to achieve. Put it all on the table. Is allowing the public to learn about a dangerous situation the only thing? What about keeping your job, or maintaining future career options? Do you want the guilty ones to be exposed and penalized, or to admit that they were wrong? What personal sacrifices are you willing to make to achieve your most important goals? What about your personal life?

Once you've spelled out your goals, then it's time to develop a strategy, which is a means of moving from your present situation towards your goals. Any decent strategy must take political realities into account, things such as who is likely to support you, the resources at the disposal of your opponents, the cultural climate, your skills in this sort of enterprise, and so forth. In formulating a strategy, it is valuable to have a gut-level understanding of how science operates as a system of power-knowledge.

Let me give two contrasting Australian examples illustrating the value of understanding science as a power-knowledge system and having well-thought-out goals. First is the case of Phil Vardy and Jill French, medical researchers who worked for William McBride, the Australian doctor who discovered that the drug thalidomide causes birth defects. Vardy and French found out that McBride had falsified some of his data in a published paper. They confronted him about it, they were dismissed and their careers were almost destroyed. They had the naive belief that truth would lead to justice. They had no strategy that took account of the exercise of power. The board of Foundation 41, which McBride had set up for his medical research, backed him. McBride had the prestige and power. It was only years later, after journalists took up the story, that McBride's fraud was exposed.

The second example involves Dr David Rindos, an archaeologist at the University of Western Australia, who was denied tenure in 1993. He knew that this was coming. After arriving at the university in 1989, he soon discovered a range of improper behaviors in the Archaeology Department, including sexual impositions placed on students. As soon as he began expressing concern about these problems, Rindos came under attack. He was moved to another department, accused of plagiarism, accused of sexual harassment, had his teaching taken away and was eventually moved out of any department--a typical pattern for a severe case of suppression. This was highly stressful but he mounted an effective campaign with the goal of gaining tenure or, if that was unsuccessful, exposing the university administration. He produced a mammoth body of material documenting his case for tenure. The tenure committee based its case for rejection on his research record. Rindos, as well as documenting his case, mobilized support nationally and internationally. Thirty prominent figures in the field wrote to the university testifying to his outstanding research record and abilities. Rindos and his supporters also developed an effective media campaign and won the support of some politicians. Rindos' campaign took into account the powerful forces ranged against him. Although he was not successful in gaining tenure, he has certainly succeeded in severely embarrassing the university.

Rindos doesn't think he was in control quite as much as I've suggested. For example, he contacted just a dozen people to obtain letters of support, and they took the initiative to spread the word to others. But he was going about it in the right sort of way.

There's no method that can guarantee success. Sometimes a simple "speak-truth-to-power" approach will work, and sometimes the most sophisticated campaign will fail. I believe that an approach based on clear goals and a strategy based on an understanding of science as a power-knowledge system will improve the chances of success. With this foundation, it is worthwhile examining some methods of opposing suppression.

Document your case

This is absolutely crucial if there is any chance of repercussions. Evidence of corruption, discrimination or public hazard must be watertight. This means saving copies of correspondence, receipts, lab notes, or whatever is important. It can also involve notes on conversations and signed statements from colleagues. Keep the documents in a safe place.

Documents are valuable, but to be useful there needs to be an account of your case that is accessible and understandable to outsiders--people who aren't familiar with the situation. In my files on suppression cases, there are several for which I have literally hundreds of pages of documents. Very few people are going to wade through or make sense of such a pile of paper.

What's needed is a convenient summary, perhaps a one-page summary or a 5000-word article. The documents provide back-up material. For the person in the center of a case, it's extremely difficult to obtain the perspective to write a clear summary. If possible, get a sympathetic person to write an account. Alternatively, if you write it yourself, get comments from others on how to make it communicate well.

Mobilize support

In my opinion, this is usually the most important technique for opposing suppression. This is also the area where understanding of science as a power-knowledge system is most crucial. You need to work out who is likely to support you.

* If you're up against a powerful interest group, then members of this group are least likely to support you--at least not openly.

* Are any of your colleagues sympathetic? If so, your position is greatly strengthened. But some whistleblowers are quickly isolated, since their colleagues are afraid that they'll be victimized too.

* Other dissidents can be very helpful. They can provide moral support and invaluable insights into the dynamics of suppression. Whistleblower support organizations also can be very helpful.

* People from outside your organisation sometimes can be a great help. This might include personal friends, colleagues at other institutions, "members of the public," and even people from other countries.

* Social movement groups, such as social justice or environmental groups, sometimes are helpful. This depends a lot on the issue you're taking up. If you've been speaking out about problems due to forestry practices, then environmental groups are likely to be supportive. But there are no guarantees. Social movement elites have been known to suppress insiders or sympathizers who are seen to be critical of the movement or its methods.

* The media often can play a crucial role. I'll comment on this below.

So, you have some allies. How can they help? A first and absolutely vital way is by listening and providing advice and moral support. Being attacked is often psychologically devastating. It can destroy your faith in the organization or cause to which you have committed years of work--or even destroy your faith in the possibility of justice. Furthermore, when longstanding colleagues and friends show their true colors by deserting you at the most crucial moment, this can be a severe blow. If you have even one friend or family member who is willing to stand by you, that is someone to be prized. (But be careful not to demand or expect unlimited support: supporters can burn out.) If some of your supporters organize an action group to take up your case, you are fortunate indeed.

A second important way that supporters can help you is by raising the issues: exposing the corruption, warning the public of dangers, etc. The aim of suppression is to stop open discussion of the issues. By continuing to raise the alarm, supporters undermine this aim.

The other issue is the suppression itself. If you are willing, this should be exposed. Suppression works best when it is hidden. Exposed to public eyes, it usually discredits the suppressors--even when what they are suppressing isn't very worthy.

Supporters also can play an important role by mobilizing further support and by taking direct action. Publicity is the key, so let's look at that.

Obtain publicity

For many scientists, publicity is unsought and even undesired. A polite report on research for promotional purposes is okay, perhaps, but anything more personal or political can be frightening. Suppression adds to the reservations. The immediate instinct of many of those who are attacked is to go into hiding, to tell almost no one about what happened and to hope that everything will somehow return to normal.

I know how difficult it can be to court publicity. But for most cases, publicity is the single most effective means to mount a challenge. Reluctance to obtain publicity about suppression must be overcome. Gird yourself for the effort.

Often it is good to start small, for example by asking some colleagues to write letters of enquiry or concern to relevant officials (often the suppressors or their superiors). This lets the officials know that other people are aware of some of what's going on.

The campaign can be expanded by getting concerned individuals from all over to write letters. To aid this process, you or your supporters can compile a small packet of material, perhaps with a summary of the case with a few supporting articles or documents. It's important that this material be as accurate as possible. Even minor errors or exaggerations will be seized upon by your opponents.

This doesn't sound like doing a whole lot and it's a pretty quiet process, but it can be very productive. Amnesty International's most important techniques are scrupulously accurate research and letter writing. They have been successful in freeing some political prisoners held by ruthless regimes. So the same techniques might work for you.

The next escalation is to make some of the information and messages of support available to a wider audience. Letters to the editor of newspapers and scientific journals can be effective. Media stories can have an even greater impact.

Many scientists are frightened of the media, claiming that they get the facts wrong. The reason the media seem dangerous is that no individual can control the coverage. So you need to understand the media as part of the wider social systems of power and knowledge.

Most journalists are competent and well-intentioned, and some have great skills. But they work under extreme pressure. A scientist can spend months doing research and writing up results, have papers checked by colleagues and referees and get to correct errors at the proof stage. Journalists don't have this luxury. They often have to write several articles in a single day, sometimes on completely different topics, knowing that some may not be published. Usually someone else writes the titles to their stories.

Therefore, you can't expect average journalists to read through piles of documents and to research the case the way you are able to. Instead, they need a succinct treatment of the key issues. They will then talk to you or your supporters and also talk to people on the other side. Remember that anything you say may end up in print. The stories they write normally will cover views on "both sides" of the issue. That gives the story greater credibility, even if it seems unfair to you. If everything in a story is exactly the way you'd like it, then it probably seems unbalanced to many readers.

Sure, there may be inaccuracies, but don't get perturbed unless they are really serious. So what if your name is misspelled or the story says you were dismissed rather than denied tenure. Your attention should be always focused on stating the central issues over and over again. Don't get distracted by minor details.

John Coulter, a researcher at the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science in Adelaide, South Australia, was dismissed in 1980. The official reasons turned out to be spurious; many thought the real motivation was Coulter's outspokenness on chemical hazards and other environmental issues. Clyde Manwell and I each wrote quite a number of letters and articles for a wide range of newspapers and journals. The responses were revealing. Newspapers were much more likely to publish our submissions than scientific journals. Furthermore, when stories were written about Coulter's case, the newspaper stories were at least as accurate as the ones in scientific journals.

There's a good reason for this. Suppression usually involves powerful figures attacking weaker ones. Prominent scientific journals often have links with powerful scientists, and so are reluctant to take up the cause of challengers. Newspapers, on the other hand, have fewer ties to elite scientists. Editors also know that readers like human interest stories and tales of corruption. Suppression cases are newsworthy. Sometimes the local media may have links with the local scientific establishment, but the national or international media may still be willing to publish something.

There are even stronger things that supporters can do: propose resolutions at scientific meetings, organize rallies or even a strike. When Clyde Manwell was threatened with dismissal from the University of Adelaide for writing a letter about pesticides to the local newspaper, students supported him by occupying administration offices. Most of these actions are important mainly for their symbolic effect: they demonstrate the intense concern felt by some individuals and alert wider audiences to the issues. In a sense, they are a form of publicity.

Mobilizing support is central to the struggle against suppression. In doing this, publicity--in the widest sense, not just media coverage--is highly effective in most cases. I've seen it work in practice, but there are also theoretical reasons why it should work. Most suppression is carried out in large bureaucratic enterprises: government departments, companies, universities. These bureaucracies are like authoritarian political systems: only a narrow range of dissent is allowed. If bureaucracy is like a political system, then an opposition movement can only succeed by mobilizing support. A whistleblower is like a lone dissident up against a repressive regime. With no base of support, isolated individuals are highly vulnerable to attack, no matter what the justice of their claims.

Bureaucracies work by controlling information as well as other resources. They can handle challenges that go through the "proper channels." Publicity undermines their power over information and also reaches a constituency that they can't control. If you'd like to pursue this, I recommend Deena Weinstein's book Bureaucratic Opposition, one of the few scholarly works that provides insights useful to dissidents.

Be wary of official channels

You may be tempted to use official procedures: make a formal complaint, file a grievance, use appeal procedures, approach an ombudsperson, or file a lawsuit. Sometimes these procedures are effective. My advice is not to rely on them. They often give only the appearance of dealing with the problem without achieving anything--for the dissident.

Official channels are designed by and usually serve the purposes of powerful organizations. Typically, they keep public discussion to a minimum. They deal with technicalities rather than the real issues. They take a lot of time, allowing abuses to continue and dissipating urgency of concern. They are largely under the control of bodies with more links to suppressors than to dissenters.

My skepticism about official channels is not based on some nasty personal experience, but rather on observing quite a number of cases. Melvin Reuber sued over the publication of the damaging letter about his performance as a scientist. He won $875,000--but then lost on appeal. He ended up with nothing to show for ten years in the courts.

William De Maria of the University of Queensland carried out a major study of whistleblowers. As part of this, he catalogued their experiences with numerous official channels, such as the Ombudsman and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. In less than one out of ten cases was there a positive response. In many cases official channels were not just useless but actually harmful to the whistleblower. Jean Lennane, former president of Whistleblowers Australia, reached a similar conclusion from her own investigations. She found only two things reliably helped: media coverage and contact with other whistleblowers.

What about whistleblower legislation? It seems to be the solution, but actually it is usually flawed from its conception. In many cases, legislation ostensibly designed to protect whistleblowers requires them to report abuses within the organization first, or to some government body. This is a prescription for making sure the abuses are not publicized. Indeed, some critics argue that whistleblower legislation gives only the appearance of providing redress against abuses while actually ensuring that nothing changes. Furthermore, only a small fraction of suppression cases qualify under whistleblower legislation. For example, it's impossible to challenge the systematic rejection of unorthodox viewpoints by academic journals.

To be sure, there are some cases where dissidents are vindicated through official channels. But in many cases this is because of efforts by supporters or the possibility of publicity. After John Coulter was dismissed from the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science, he challenged this through the Industrial Court. After the case had been heard at some length, the parties to the dispute arranged a face-saving compromise. They agreed to claim that Coulter had been retrenched rather than dismissed, thus entitling him to a considerable payout. Part of the pressure to make this arrangement came from the massive campaign waged to publicize his case.

Going through official channels is, for most dissidents, entering "enemy territory." Even the strongest cases can fail. I recommend it only if your case is rock-solid, or if pressure is being applied in other ways, and preferably both.

Faith in official channels dies hard. When one official body proves useless or joins in the suppression, many dissidents seek out another and then another. Official channels should be understood not as neutral tools of justice, but as part of a wide, though often uncoordinated, power structure. Just as science is a system of power-knowledge, so are bureaucracies, federal agencies, courts, etc. Sometimes they might be helpful to you. But be wary!

Prepare for a tough struggle

Most suppression cases last far longer than imagined at the beginning, both in terms of formal inquiries and personal consequences. Some whistleblowers are still fighting to clear their names 10 or even 20 years after the original attack. You need to be aware of the possibility of such a long-term commitment. Remember to ask, "What are my goals?" Is it worth spending years of your life on this cause? If so, what do you hope to achieve?

The struggle may be long. It can also be nasty. Be prepared for the most unscrupulous behavior by the other side. In the case between Clyde Manwell and the University of Adelaide, the university attacked by claiming that Manwell had allowed his wife, who worked in the same department, to work too many hours according to an addendum at the bottom of a carbon copy of a contract, produced in court by the university. Luckily, she had the original--and it had no addendum!

Forged documents are one thing. Destruction or hiding of documents is more common. Then there are payoffs--money, promotions, etc.--for keeping quiet or join in a conspiracy. If you have the slightest suspicion that underhanded techniques may be used, it is wise to keep multiple copies of documents, including copies deposited with a lawyer, journalist, or friend who is separate from the case. If the stakes are very high, you may wish to take personal precautions. A public profile can be a form of protection, since attacks may generate unfavorable publicity.

David Rindos reminded me of a key bit of advice: "Don't take it personally!" Dissidents often become symbols of opposition, and it is the symbol that is attacked, as in the classic case of the scapegoat. Your attackers may not really know anything about you. Of course, knowing that it isn't "personal" is one thing--avoiding emotional distress is another.

In many countries, of course, suppression of ideas is accompanied by physical repression. Scientists, academics, and intellectuals often have been targets for not just dismissal but also imprisonment, torture, and murder, for example in Mexico, Kenya, and Cambodia.

It is not my intent to be gloomy about the possibilities of dissent. Personally, I believe that dissent is vital to building a free and democratic society. Standing up for justice is good, but so is effectiveness.

There are plenty of dissenters who, after being attacked, decide to acquiesce. Thereafter, they do everything possible to conform to what's required. Sometimes they even join in attacks on other dissidents. Historically, there are cases of prominent dissidents who, after being attacked, spent years trying to become acceptable to the establishment. These are instances showing that suppression can be effective in stifling dissent. Even more important is the role of suppression in signaling to others--those who haven't expressed any dissent--the dangers of stepping out of line.

Effective dissenters neither acquiesce nor make futile gestures. Instead, they carefully assess the situation to figure out a strategy that will achieve both their own goals and those of the causes they support. Sometimes this means making an open challenge, with every prospect of being attacked. Other times it means keeping a low profile and working to mobilize support. One lesson from the failures of so many whistleblowers is the need to be aware of the power of your likely opponents, and be prepared for what is in store for you.

Like all advice, you will have to consider what I have to say here in light of your own circumstances, and make your own decisions. While there are regular patterns in suppression cases, each one has its own idiosyncratic features. From your experiences, you may learn some new techniques for resistance. I hope you'll share them with others. My own experiences, both in being attacked myself and in studying many other cases, have been profoundly educational.

Overt suppression is a sign that normal processes of social control have not worked. Suppression reveals the dynamics of power in society in a way not possible when conformity prevails. In your own struggles, or in helping to defend someone else, you'll learn a lot about the way society operates. Good luck!


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Martin, Brian. 1986. Nuclear suppression. Science and Public Policy 13:312-320.

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Stewart, Julie, Thomas Devine and Dina Rasor, 1989. Courage without Martyrdom: A Survival Guide for Whistleblowers (Washington DC: Government Accountability Project [810 First Street NE, Suite 630, Washington DC 20002, USA] and Project on Government Procurement [613 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington DC 20003, USA]).

van den Bosch, Robert. 1978. The pesticide conspiracy. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

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Brian Martin
revised 3 January 1996