Term limits and the integrity of the peer review process

Not long after the most controversial Discovery grant competition ever –at least for the Evaluation Group for Mathematics and Statistics (EG 1508)– NSERC announced that 3 out of the 4 members of that EG Executive –who were at the center of last year’s public controversy– will remain in their position for a second year in a row. Moreover, the only new executive member, who will be chairing the “pure mathematics” group within the EG is the director of the Computational Finance Program at Purdue University in Indiana. This raises several issues, not the least of which being questions of term limits and … judgment.

Indeed,  NSERC decided to extend the elapsed 3-year term of an American based colleague (originally recruited to the Applied Math subcommittee, then moved to Statistics) by one more year, so that he can chair the “pure mathematics” group. Two of the panelists were extended to a 4th year on the EG so that they can be on the Executive.

Is the leadership shortage so severe on that EG to warrant such extreme measures? Anyone familiar with Canada’s research community could tell you with no hesitation that this is not the case. There are actually a number of highly qualified veteran mathematicians on the panel, who were available, willing to lead forward, and whose term has not expired.

This questionable move has led the chair of the Math/NSERC liaison committee to write yet another letter to NSERC to register its concern vis-à-vis this very insensitive appointment on the part of NSERC, given the outcomes of the 2011 Discovery Grant competition. This is especially the case in view of the controversial decisions on the part of NSERC and the EG 1508 Executive Committee in the 2011 Discovery Grant competition…”  

 “They must have reasonably defensible reasons for their choices”, said a friend. But what are they? To my knowledge, NSERC has yet to respond to the letter, which was sent on August 30th.

Do you remember the letter to NSERC’s president from the 16 Canadian panelists on the Evaluation Group 1508 for mathematics and statistics, in which they “draw (her) attention to the distressing results of the 2011 Discovery Grants Program”? Well, in spite of President Fortier’s reaching out in her reply, and in an astonishing development that has shocked even the most blasé (AKA me) in the Canadian mathematical community, NSERC seems to have decided that none of the signatories of that letter is qualified to lead the “pure mathematics” group within the EG.

Let’s be very clear. My concerns and those of the Liaison committee were not triggered by the qualifications, the competence, or the sense of fair play of the selected co-chair. The concerns are primarily about the extremely important issue of term limits on these evaluation panels.

But let’s also review the context, where these decisions were made by NSERC’s staff.

It is a fact that the incumbents on the EG executive have been –rightly or wrongly— at the center of last year’s storm caused by controversial funding decisions. Indeed, many members of the community point to their responsibilities for not questioning NSERC’s staff about the $700K cut in the EG budget, for trivializing the good work of the Evaluation Groups by devising a ridiculously distorting “bin to funding map”, for segregating within the same research community by assigning differential dollar values within the same bin, and by unfairly depleting the grants of several top Canadian researchers.  Even NSERC’s President pointed to their responsibility in the anomalous results of the last competition.

But this is not the end of the story. The Mathematics departments at UBC and U. Toronto are widely acknowledged as two of the top three in the country, yet neither is represented on the EG, while Simon Fraser University has three members.  Could all this be an unfortunate coincidence, when everyone knows that the loudest voices that came out against NSERC’s new ways were from UBC and UT? Is it a coincidence that the VP-research of these two universities also wrote NSERC to express concerns about how their researchers have fared in the latest … forgettable competition?

Regardless of the competence of the people involved, there are principles that need to be followed to ensure the integrity of peer review.

Term limits are absolutely essential for the evaluation groups, both for their members and especially for their Executive. The role of the EG Executive committees is becoming extremely decisive. Issues around their accountability are destined to loom larger, since NSERC’s new ways are now  leading them to make decisions with enormous consequences.

The letter of the liaison committee to NSERC is clear on that point. We believe that it should be a matter of principle that membership in the Executive Committee serve one year only, in rotation from the EG panel as a whole. It would furthermore be reasonable to apply this principle to the chair of the EG as well, although this is not your current practice, as this position has expanded to wield an overly large and undue influence on Canadian mathematics and statistics research funding.”

We couldn’t agree more. People have agendas, whether they are conscious of them or not. NSF division directors hold powerful positions, in which they are expected to exert leadership and shape the agenda of their research community during their tenure. But that is the very reason they have term limits, which they cannot exceed. That is the very reason why these are rotating positions, which cannot be occupied by career bureaucrats.  Just as in the political process, recurring elections are there for good reason. They are ways to allow the democratic process to correct agendas and trends if they are not perceived to be inadequate by the community at large.

NSERC’s staff needed to reassure the community after the unprecedented public statement of 16 panelists on the Evaluation Group questioning the results of a competition they were supposed to manage.  What they did instead is not reassuring.

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