Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review

June 13th, 2009

Posted by: admin

From ScienceInsider comes this report that the Canadian science minister has taken an extraordinary step of asking the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to conduct a second peer review of an awarded workshop grant.  The topic of the workshop is “Israel/Palestine: Mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace.”  This is a topic that can attract controversy, and the issue has been the source of protest when combined with scientific events.  The minister’s stated objections are that:

“several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic.”

Independent of the accuracy of these claims (the ScienceInsider article notes only two speakers have withdrawn over the issue, and neither are Israeli), there’s plenty wrong with why this would be a valid reason to re-do the peer review.   There doesn’t appear to be a claim that the possible bias of these speakers has influenced the work that would be presented (and supported).  In other words, no clear indication or suggestion of bad research that was missed by the review process.  This was a political request to change scientific procedures for non-scientific reasons.

There’s a lot of qualification over the alleged biases.  The claim isn’t that the speakers are anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.  It isn’t even that the minister thinks the speakers have said things that were anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.  It’s that some individuals and/or groups complained to the minister that the speakers said things that could be perceived as anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.  For this the minister asks a research council for a re-do.  However, replacing speakers, which would likely solve the kerfuffle, ordinarily does not require a new review.  The council is reviewing how this grant was handled to ensure it met their policies and procedures.

The science minister handled this badly.  If there are legitimate concerns about the view of individuals at the conference, and an independent review panel felt the workshop was worth supporting, there are other means by which someone in the Canadian government could have taken action.  The U.S. is fond of barring entry to people for all sorts of reasons, independent of whether or not they were invited to a conference.  If that wasn’t possible, the aggrieved groups are certainly free to protest the event.  Political objections ought to be handled by political means.  By asking for an additional research review without concerns about the underlying science, the minister injected politics into the process.  I am not trying to say that peer review is apolitical, just that the injection of politics here isn’t warranted.

12 Responses to “Canadian Science Minister Muddles in Peer Review”

  1. Raven Says:

    The funding for the research in question comes from the government. Politicians get heat whenever the government funds things that people object to. The media and opposition politicians really don’t care about the ‘independent review process’ if they think they can use the funding link to smear a politician.

    As for the 2nd review I don’t think anyone can pass judgement until we see what the minister does if the review comes back and says the research is sound. If the minister accepts the second review then I classify this as easonable oversight where a boss who will be held accountable for mistakes demands that his underlings be really certain before making him commit to supporting something controversial.

    If he ignores the 2nd review then charges of political interference would be fair.

  2. 2
  3. David Bruggeman Says:

    I could have used some additional precision towards the end of the post.

    The council is not conducting a second peer review, at least not yet. That is what the minister asked them to do, and what I think is out of line for the changes he might want. What the council is doing is reviewing their procedures to make sure everything was above board. As this research council was judged by an independent panel to have a peer-review system “up to the best practices and highest international standards.” I suspect the review of this peer review won’t find any reason to take action.

    While I can understand someone thinking a simple once over isn’t out of line, I don’t think the minister has offered sufficient justification to ask for a second peer review.

  4. 3
  5. Raven Says:

    It probably worth pointing out that the ScienceInsider report is likely completely misrepresenting the Minister’s position because the article started by repeating the nonsense about Goodyear “after evoking his religious beliefs in connection with his views about evolution”.

    What really happened in that case was a reporter asked “have your stopped beating your wife?” type of question and the Minister refused to answer (it appears the Minister, like many scientists, believes in evolution but does not discount the possibility of a supernatural element). The reporter spun this into a front page article that included quotes of outrage from the same Jim Turk quoted in the ScienceInsider article.

    It quite possible that the Minister (who is a Chiropractor) did not really understand the implications of asking for a “second peer review” and the conference organizers decided that kicking up a fuss would better serve their political ends instead of finding another way to address the Minister’s legitimate concerns that the conference might turn into an anti-Israel hate fest.

    OTOH, You original assessment could be right. But I am skeptical of the version of events as reported by the academics involved.

  6. 4
  7. Raven Says:

    Here is some more background on the Isreal-Palestine issue at York university:

    Here is some background that may explain the why the Ministers has a reason to be concerned:
    “Ontario [university worker] union calls for ban on Israeli professors
    The resolution is still being drafted but the union said it will seek to prohibit Israeli academics from speaking, teaching or researching at Ontario universities. ”

    FWIW, the same James Turk is on the record opposing the ban on isreali academics which was being pushed by the union.

  8. 5
  9. David Bruggeman Says:

    I think claiming a Science magazine blog is misrepresenting the facts needs a bit more support. I don’t think the earlier squabble is relevant to this issue, which is why I didn’t mention it in the post.

    To return to the point of the post I refer to the Globe and Mail’s account of the request:

    “Mr. Goodyear has asked SSHRC president Chad Gaffield to convene a second peer-review committee to assess if the conference is still worthy of public funds, given that the initial proposal did not have details about everyone who would be speaking at the three-day conference.

    “”Several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic,” Mr. Goodyear said in a June 5 statement. It was not widely circulated, but Gary Toft, the minister’s spokesman, said it was sent to a number of Canadian Jewish media groups.

    “Trevor Lynn, a spokesman for SSHRC, confirmed that the minister had spoken to Dr. Gaddfield, but said he can’t comment about how SSHRC will respond to the request. Other than the minister, he said, no other group or individual has complained to the council about the conference.

    “He said the council is looking into the matter.”

    The objections at issue – apparently just a few of the speakers – could be changed without going through a second peer-review. Goodyear could have avoided much of this fuss (at least from the research side) by not using the word “peer” in his discussion. Now, perhaps he’s trying to placate the groups who want the conference shut down, but won’t address the council directly. I doubt they’d care much whether it was an additional review or an additional peer review, so I stand by my initial argument that the minister botched this. If he fails to understand the significance of asking for a “second peer review” he’s not well advised.

    As for the conference organizers, they have argued that there is enough of a diversity of speakers to represent many different perspectives on the issue. A review of the conference program suggests to me that they have. The multiple perspectives and diversity of participants would support their political objective of academic freedom, one to which I’m sympathetic. That they had to assert this to the science minister is annoying.

  10. 6
  11. Raven Says:

    David Bruggeman Says:
    “Goodyear could have avoided much of this fuss (at least from the research side) by not using the word “peer” in his discussion.”

    At this point I think we are in agreement. The problem is a science minister who probably does not understand what ‘peer review’ means when he asked for it.

    In Canada, the cabinent must consist of elected MPs and there are geographical quotas that must be met. This means the Ministers usually know little or nothing about the departments they oversee. That is why I am less suprised about a Minister acting like and idiot and expect the career bureaucrats that run the dept to educate the Minister as required.

    My earlier responses where also motivated a misconception that the faculty at York had a strong anti-Isreal bias. It appears that it is simply the union representing the non-faculty workers and the student body (thereby demonstrating the value of research before posting).

  12. 7
  13. docpine Says:

    What’s odd to me about this is the idea that “science” has a particular role to play in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Certainly people can study it and develop ideas for resolving it but wouldn’t that be international studies, not “science” per se? Is every academic field “science”?

  14. 8
  15. David Bruggeman Says:

    It’s the Social Science and Humanities Research Council that’s responsible for the review, and under the responsibility of the science minister. Don’t tell me you think the social sciences aren’t science?

  16. 9
  17. docpine Says:

    Ahhh… I have to wonder about a Council that is “humanities research” –

    But thanks for calling me on this.. I think we might have different views of “science” and what is not..

    Perhaps it would be an interesting exercise to go through the presentations at this meeting workshop (if they are posted) and assess the “scienceiness” of each presentation (citing Colbert here). I guess we could develop criteria for “scienciness” (can be replicated, whatever) and perhaps we could use a Doodle poll to get Prometheus contributors to weigh in?

    In case this isn’t clear, I am concerned about “science” being used as a cloak of undiscussability (don’t question my peer review and I won’t question yours) which seems to defeat the purpose of science as reasoned inquiry, IMHO.

  18. 10
  19. David Bruggeman Says:

    I linked to the conference program in #5, so see what you think of the titles.

    The questioning of the peer review, from what I can tell, has nothing to do with the underlying science or research, which are perfectly reasonable grounds to criticize a peer review process. The SSHRC, at least right now, is reviewing the first review, and not conducting a second.

    My take is that the pressure on the minister is to shut down the event, denying that it could possibly be about reasoned inquiry.

    Are those scare quotes around “humanities research”?

  20. 11
  21. docpine Says:

    Let’s start with legal research. For example, I think something should be regulated (say carbon) and I look various regulations and statutes for sources of regulatory authority. Most of us would say it’s a valuable exercise, it is knowledge, it is learning, but somehow it is not “science.” Publications in any academic field needs peers to review it, but not all academic fields are “sciences.”

    So I am not weighing in on what the minister did; but you said “his was a political request to change scientific procedures for non-scientific reasons”; first I am not sure that the conference can be characterized as a “scientific conference” but certainly choosing people to be at a conference is not a “scientific procedure.” In fact, I have found selecting people to speak at a conference is ultimately a political process itself , but it is the politics and sociology of the scientific community planning the meeting (sometimes economics weighs in as well for travel funding).

  22. 12
  23. David Bruggeman Says:

    But those are processes left to a scientific – or research – community. The societal norms involved typically allow the research communities to conduct their own peer or expert review processes. Outside authorities can help dictate how reviews may be conducted in general, but there has usually been independence in how individual grant proposals – be they for research programs, conferences, dissertation research, or what have you – are conducted.

    I think the conference has scientific papers or presentations, and was properly reviewed by a research council that engages with social science topics. I’m comfortable calling that peer review a scientific process.

    I also wouldn’t think the difference between peer review in history, philosophy, or other humanities fields and those in the sciences to be worth the distinction. All help to instill some form of rigor and/or standards on fields of inquiry.