The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

The ESF Fiasco is the tip of an Iceberg…

… and Science policy is a passenger on the Titanic. In steerage.

Alert reader Jonathan Howard made the following comment on yesterday’s post about the ESF’s decision to threaten with legal action astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martin for her opinion piece in this week’s Nature (bold section is my highlight):

“It’s pretty clear what persuaded the ESF to threaten the lawsuit (…) . They make money out of their reviewing activity and such a critique as we are discussing could damage their commercial position. They are a company providing a product, and they are only doing what any company would do in such a case. In my view it was provocative and silly of Dr Moro-Martin to goad the ESF in this unprofessional way since they are already facing legal action from a national representative body in Portugal on the same issue. Still, it seems also provocative and silly of the ESF to react the way it did.”

Dr Howard’s view of this is particularly illuminating because he, and I hope this is not slanderous, is a Briton. That matters because the UK is the world’s preferred destination for libel tourism. British law on defamation heavily favors the accuser, placing the burden of proof on the defendant (together with blasphemy & obscenity legislation, and a trigger-happy approach to the Official Secrets Act, this makes the UK a surprisingly hostile environment for free speech). That, and Nature having its offices in London, make it likely that if Jean-Claude follows up on his cowardly threat, the whole mess will end up in the British courts.

Thus, an aspect of the outsourcing of public policy evaluation to a private company has a very worrisome undercurrent: if, as Dr Howard rightfully points out, we can expect a private business to defend its bottom-line at all costs, then they have no place in an evaluation process of this type. The public has a right to debate openly the methods, criteria and implementation of something like the government funding for research units. An inherently litigious entity looking to protect its brand and revenue stream cannot be allowed to stifle this. Throughout the world government funding agencies commission scientists to evaluate research. It is a flawed model in many ways. But I don’t remember any colleagues anywhere in the world threatening to sue their peers for debating their evaluation. Discussions can get heated, sometimes rude, sometimes inappropriate. That is how it should be. Jean-Claude, and in the comment thread of the Nature piece a Ms Jane Swift (“Team Leader Communications European Science Foundation”), have done the scientific community the great service of demonstrating why their entity in particular has no place in public policy. Dr Howard in his comment points to the broader, much more damaging effect of outsourcing public policy and evaluations to the horde of private consultants looking out for their “their commercial position.”

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