Our science minister Gary Goodyear is getting involved with organization and funding of scientific conferences. Last week he asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to reconsider funding for an upcoming conference at York University. Specifically, he recommended conducting a “second peer review”. Here is an excerpt from his official statement:
It has come to my attention that following a recommendation of a peer review board earlier this year, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provided $19,750 under its Aid to Research Workshops and Conferences Program to a conference at York University entitled “Israel/Palestine: mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace”.
Approval of this funding was based on an initial proposal that did not include detailed information on the speakers at the conference. Since funding was provided, the organizers of the conference have added a number of speakers to their agenda.
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. Some have also expressed concerns that the event is no longer an academic research-focussed [sic] event.
The SSHRC did request an update from the conference organizers, then issued a statement to the effect that everything is in fine order, thank you very much, and the conference will be funded as planned.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers has called on Goodyear to step down:
“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”
This blog is not an appropriate venue to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian situation, for more reasons than I could list here (and please keep that in mind if you would like to comment). Neither do I want to discuss the “hate speech” accusations such as those quoted in this article. The conference abstracts are over here. If any of them qualify as hate speech under Canadian law (see here), then there are appropriate procedures in place. Intimidation by political interference in the peer review process isn’t one of them.
I do want to repeat what I said in an earlier post: that academic freedom applies to all views expressed in the context of academic dialogue, including those we disagree with. Especially those we disagree with. That’s pretty much the point of it. And ultimately, academic freedom leads to better science. The correctness and significance of scientific ideas isn’t always clear right away and we’re better off if all such ideas are allowed to compete on their merits.
Of course, if an academic conference became a political event instead, then that would be a problem. However, a political science conference does not become a political event just because opinions about politics are being expressed. After all, that’s what political scientists do for a living. Political action – now that would be another matter. I don’t think, though, that we’ve seen any evidence of that.
But the main purpose of this post is to clarify several aspects of the organization and funding of academic conferences for those readers who have never been involved with that.
Conference grants are usually awarded as follows. The organizers submit a proposal containing a description of the subject matter, names of possible speakers, the format of the conference, the venue, duration and tentative dates. The proposal is then subject to peer review by a selection committee, external reviewers, or some combination of both. Based on the recommendations of the reviewers, the proposal may be funded as requested, funded at a lower level, or not funded.
A 20K amount is substantial, but not outlandish. For a 3-day workshop in Toronto (with most participants staying 4 nights), it is roughly enough to pay for accommodation and per diem for about 40 participants. However, we must also consider the travel costs of the participants. I have counted over 50 confirmed speakers, including about 15 from Israel and several more from overseas, on the conference web site. With that in mind, the given level of funding does not look very high. It covers only a fraction of the cost and I’m assuming that many participants will pay part of their expenses from their own grants.
Once a positive funding decision is made, it cannot normally be reversed except where program guidelines are violated. In the latter case, the decision to withhold funding would be made by the program officers of the granting agency. A “second peer review” is completely unheard of and would be in violation of the agency’s own rules.
In rare cases, the funding level may be adjusted after the initial decision (in either direction) if there are major changes to the budget of the granting agency. I do not know, though, of any cases involving a complete reversal of the decision. I don’t think it happens much, at least not in mathematics. The peer review for such things is typically quite strict. In addition to the proposal itself, the reviewers always consider the experience and track record of the organizers. Most proposers will have some experience organizing unfunded conferences (such as “special sessions” of their professional societies where everyone comes at their own expense) before they are given their first major conference grant. Similarly, if someone has a history of organizing less than successful conferences (most of the invited speakers don’t show up, the profile of the conference is too low given the funding level, etc), that does not bode well for their next proposal. This usually prevents any serious problems before they can occur.
It should be noted that the organizers commit the grant money when they issue invitations (“we would like to invite you to give a talk and we will cover your travel expenses up to $xxx”) and the participants make their plans based on that committment. Thus a reversal of a funding decision would affect the participants just as much as it would the organizers. It would not be done lightly.
It’s perfectly normal to add new speakers to the program after the proposal is funded. In fact, it would be rather unusual not to do so. First, most proposals include a tentative list of the speakers that the conference organizers would like to invite, but there is no guarantee that all of them will accept (a 70% acceptance rate is generally very good). If some of the invitees decline then further invitations are issued. Second, proposals are usually submitted well in advance of the conference (1-2 years). Any number of developments in the field might take place between the submission of the proposal and the dates of the conference, and it makes sense to account for them by inviting additional speakers. Third, many conferences include both invited talks and contributed talks. The latter means that there is a call to submit abstracts for consideration, then the organizing committee (or another reviewing body) selects the best submissions for presentation at the conference. Nobody can really predict who might or might not submit an abstract. And fourth, junior participants are often selected very shortly before the conference. That typically includes postdocs or finishing graduate students who were busy taking their quals and might have not chosen a research direction yet when the proposal was being written.
Under the program guidelines, “approval for major program changes (e.g., changing the theme or focus of the event) must be requested in writing to SSHRC”. A major program change, as I understand it, is for example if I submit a proposal for a conference in algebraic geometry and then have a conference in harmonic analysis instead. Of course, if I did actually submit a proposal for an algebraic geometry conference, the chances of that getting funded would be exactly zero. Caveat emptor. Adding a new topic or a few more speakers does not constitute a major change and the SSHRC guidelines recognize that explicitly.
Hope that this was useful.