onsdag 15 oktober 2014

An open letter to Mr Martin Hynes, chief executive of the European Science Foundation

Dear Mr Hynes,

I am writing to you in your role as chief executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF). To the best of my memory, we haven't met, so allow me to introduce myself as a professor of mathematical statistics at Chalmers University of Technology and a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (a member organization of the ESF). I furthermore serve on the Scientific Council for Natural and Engineering Sciences at the Swedish Research Council (another member organization of the ESF). I am mentioning these things just to give you an idea of who I am; the opinions I express below are solely my own and not meant to represent those of any of the organizations just mentioned.

A few days ago, on October 8, the journal Nature published an opinion piece by astronomer Amaya Moro-Martin. The piece carries the headline A call to those who care about Europe's science, it is generally critical of budget cuts by various research funding agencies in Europe, and it contains the following passage (boldface added by me).
    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.
You probably already know what happened next, but I retell it anyway so that my blog readers can learn about it (as for myself, I heard about it from the blog Retraction Watch). In any case, shortly after the publication in Nature, Moro-Martin received a letter from Dr Jean-Claude Worms, head of the ESF's Science Support Office, with the following content.
    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.
I kindly ask you (a) to retract Dr Jean-Claude Worms' threat to "take [...] legal action" against Amaya Moro-Martin, (b) to apologize to her, and (c) to bring to Mr Worms' attention something that has obviously escaped him, namely that the ESF is supposed to be "sensitive to societal and ethical considerations in all its activities". Dr Worms' abominable letter to Moro-Martin (threatening a ridiculous lawsuit as a mere intimidation tactic) clearly does not live up to such standards.

If instead you should turn down my request, and go on to have the ESF take the legal action against Moro-Martin threatened by Dr Worms, then please note the following. I, too, consider the evaluation process referred to by Amaya Moro-Martin flawed.1 So please go on to sue me as well.

Yours sincerely,

Olle Häggström


1) Well, to be perfectly honest, I have no clue (other than that I have never seen, and can hardly imagine, a scientific evaluation procedure on that level so obviously flawless that it does not leave legitimate room for someone to call it "flawed"). Bu my point is not that the procedure was flawed, but that I have the right (just like Amaya Moro-Martin) to say it was.

6 kommentarer:

  1. According to this tweet and this blog post, an ESF spokesperson has written to Dan Vergano, senior writer-editor at National Geographic, that "it is not the intention of the European Science Foundation to undertake legal proceedings against any individual at this stage".

    Huh, "at this stage"? That is highly ambiguous and very disturbing.

  2. You may learn about the flaws in the ESF/FCT evaluation by looking at


    for a short version, and


    for a longer, more detailed, post.

    Perhaps these things explain why ESF thought (at the time) that it would be a good idea to threaten Moro-Martin.

    In my opinion it becomes quite clear that ESF is quite ready to throw scientific rigour and ethics out of the window in order to comply with the demands of the costumer, in this instance the Portuguese Science Foundation.

  3. I sent, of course. a notifiaction of my letter directly to Mr Hynes. Perhaps I am just overly impatient, but I do find it worrying that he hasn't yet responded, because this is not exactly a case where many days of careful considerations seem to be needed to figure out the correct reponse.

  4. Still no response from Hynes. But I later wrote to Pär Omling, president of the ESF, and he replied with the welcome massage that the ESF will take no legal action against either Moro-Martin on the publishing house.

    Below (in Swedish) are the emails between Omling and myself.


    From: Olle Häggström
    Sent: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 18:41
    To: par.omling@rektor.lu.se
    Subject: FW: Law suit threat against Amayo Moro-Martin from the ESF

    Hej Pär

    Jag är besviken på att Martin Hynes efter snart två veckor inte har reagerat på mitt ebrev till honom, och ännu mer besviken på att ESF inte verkar ha lyft ett finger för att återta det oanständiga hot som i deras namn riktats mot Amayo Moro-Martin. Det här är inte rimligt, det måste du väl ändå hålla med om...?

    Vänliga hälsningar

    Olle Häggström


    From: Pär Omling [par.omling@rektor.lu.se]
    Sent: Wednesday, October 29, 2014 20:30
    To: Olle Häggström
    Subject: Re: Law suit threat against Amayo Moro-Martin from the ESF


    efter att ha kontaktat Martin Hynes har jag förstått att ESF har fått många kommentarer om den pågående utvärderingen i Portugal från många engagerade personer. ESF har valt att svara alla gemensamt genom en ”Communication” i Nature Correspondence.
    ESF har härvid bekräftat till ”the Editor” att man inte kommer att vidta några som helst legala åtgärder vare sig mot författaren eller ”the Publishing Group”. När det gäller själva utvärderingen är viktigt att notera att processen fortfarande pågår och att det är alldeles för tidigt att dra några slutsatser om resultatet innan panelerna (och ev överklagandeprocess) har kommit till sina slutsatser.
    Ref till artikeln är:


    1. "När det gäller själva utvärderingen är viktigt att notera att processen fortfarande pågår och att det är alldeles för tidigt att dra några slutsatser om resultatet innan panelerna (och ev överklagandeprocess) har kommit till sina slutsatser."

      You might find it interesting to learn that the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities thinks otherwise.

      In a letter addressed to the Portuguese Minister for Science and Education released on the 24th of October and made available to the media, they declared that it is no longer possible to give the benefit of the doubt to this evaluation.

      In fact, they state their opinion on the subject in no uncertain terms with sentences such as:

      "For an evaluation to promote excellence it must itself be excellent if not outstanding, which is not the case."


      "This evaluation process does not have the required quality."

      They conclude that

      "its outcome is a serious loss of confidence in the evaluation system."

      They also state that the requests for a new evaluation lodged by several research units should not be handled by ESF.

      You may download the full document at


  5. Dear Olle Häggström
    Not only is it true that the Swift-Worms letter to Nature does not address any of the real problems that haunt this particular evaluation, but it would seem that comments were closed immediately following a first comment which questioned the relevance of the letter.
    I sent a letter to Nature on the flaws of the ESF evaluation but
    its publication was refused. That is, Nature published the position
    of an external party (Amaya Moro-Martin) the position of the evaluators (ESF, Jean-Claude Worms) but until now did not publish the position of the Portuguese scientists, some being evaluated in abnormal conditions and some other (about 50% of the research institutes) already evaluated with a death sentence.
    Carlos Fiolhais
    University of Coimbra, Portugal