The European Science Foundation (ESF) has threatened legal action against a scientist for calling an evaluation process supported by the agency “flawed” in a commentary piece in Nature.
Amaya Moro-Martin, an assistant astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) and an associate research scientist at The Johns Hopkins University, apparently angered the ESF with the bolded phrase below:
There are too many examples to list, but here are some of the most prominent: since 2009, Italy has seen recruitment of scientists fall by 90% and the amount spent on basic research drop to nothing. In Spain, the amount of money spent on civilian research and development has dropped by 40%, and fewer than 10% of researchers who retire are being replaced. Since 2011, the budget of Greek research centres and universities has halved, with a freeze on hiring. Already reeling from budget cuts of 50% for universities and research centres, Portugal may now have to close half of its research units because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation.
As first reported by the De Rerum Natura blog and confirmed for us by Moro-Martin, Jean-Claude Worms, the head of the European Science Foundation’s Science Support Office, sent the astrophysicist the following letter:
The European Science Foundation hereby requests that you retract the following allegation contained within your opinion piece published on 8 October in Nature (Volume 514, Issue 7521). [Portugal may now have to close half of its research units] because of a flawed evaluation process supported by the European Science Foundation. The European Science Foundation refutes any allegation that the process was flawed and considers that the statement cited above is slanderous, as the independent work performed in the framework of the evaluation of FCT research units followed the best international practices. http://www.esf.org/serving-science/fct-rd-units-evaluation-by-esf.html. While the European Science Foundation is cited in your paper, it is highly regrettable that no one from our organisation was interviewed and no request for clarification made. In addition, and as you may be aware, the Portuguese national union for higher education has launched a formal legal action on the evaluation process, and this has not yet come to a conclusion. If your allegation is not publically retracted in Nature, the European Science Foundation will be compelled to take appropriate legal action.
Moro-Martin said she had been asked by Nature not to comment until they had looked into the issue, which seems quite reasonable. Nature won a hard-fought battle against a libel claim just recently, and they called attention to the growth of “lawyering up” by scientists in an editorial just last week. Worms has not responded to our request for comment.
In the meantime, Dave Fernig called the threat “contemptible,” and we’ll comment: The idea that calling a process “flawed” is slanderous is just ridiculous. What evaluation process is so perfect that calling it flawed is not a reasonable opinion?
Update, 8 a.m. Eastern, 10/16/14: De Rerum Natura reports:
In a reply sent to Dan Vergano, National Geographic Senior Writer-Editor, an ESF spokesperson wrote:“It is not the intention of the European Science Foundation to undertake legal proceedings against any individual at this stage.”
How wonderfully vague of them. In legal circles, this is known as “reserving the right.”