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Policy and funding

Nobel Foundation stays firm on symposium cancellation

07 Jan 2011 Michael Banks
Cause for concern?

The Nobel Foundation is refusing to back down over its decision to cancel a Nobel Symposium on water in biology and medicine that was due to take place in August in Stockholm. The three-day-long conference was cancelled last September by the Nobel Symposium Committee because of the way in which the meeting was organized. However, physicists and other scientists who were set to speak at the conference are dismayed at the cancellation, saying that they have not been given any firm reasons as to why the meeting has been called off. The Nobel Foundation, which also awards the Nobel Prize for Physics, finances several official Nobel Symposia each year, with 2011 featuring meetings on international relations as well as on mind, machines and molecules.

The symposium on water in biology and medicine was first initiated in April 2009 by John Skår of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. By May 2010 the proposal to hold the meeting was assessed by members of three Nobel-prize committees – physics, chemistry, and physiology and medicine – who each recommended that the meeting go ahead. The proposal was then sent to the board of the Nobel Foundation, which accepted the proposal in June and awarded it SEK 1.1m (about £100,000).

Following the board’s approval, the meeting was officially named as Nobel Symposium 151 (NS151) on water in biology and medicine, with Skår acting as co-ordinator of the meeting’s organizing committee. “Nobel Symposia are prestigious events,” says Peter Coveney, director of the Centre for Computational Science at University College London, who was also on the NS151 organizing committee. “They are taken as an indication of where future Nobel prizes may be heading.”

In September last year, after invitations were sent to speakers, the Nobel Symposium Committee (NSC), chaired by Michael Sohlman, who is also executive director of the Nobel Foundation, asked Bengt Nordén from Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg to assess the merits of the invited speakers. The review was initiated after two former members of the organizing committee wrote a letter to the Nobel Foundation complaining about the meeting’s organization and its speaker list.

Dissenting voices

However, one of the dissenting voices was apparently one of five people who gave evidence to Nordén for his report to the NSC. In an e-mail seen by Physics World, Nordén wrote in early October that the people he interviewed felt that the majority of the speakers “did not meet the criterion of being eligible for a Nobel Symposium”. Nordén concluded that there was “something” in the criticism of the former members.

It’s like scientific misconduct. You can’t just break a contract like the Nobel Foundation has done. Eugene Stanley, Boston University

On 30 September the NSC decided to cancel the meeting. It then sent a brief letter to the invited speakers on 5 November saying that “the planning of the Nobel Symposium 151 has not taken place in the way required for a Nobel Symposia”. The letter, sent by Sohlman, stated that the cancellation was made with “no judgements whatsoever about the scientific standing of any of the invited participants”.

Skår told Physics World that he received no explanation as to why the planning was not sufficient, given that the proposal had already been accepted, adding that the organization committee had also not been given any opportunity to refute the accusations. Indeed, many researchers are furious that the meeting has been cancelled at such a late stage. “This could become the major scientific scandal of the year,” says Eugene Stanley from Boston University, who was due to speak at the conference about anomalies in liquid water. “It’s like scientific misconduct. You just can’t just break a contract like the Nobel Foundation has done.”

Requirements not met

Sohlman told Physics World via e-mail that concerns regarding NS151 were raised in September when the NSC realized “that the work of the organizers did not meet the stipulated requirements”. When asked to elaborate what these requirements are, and whether Nordén’s report played any role in the cancellation, no response has yet been given.

Skår refutes Sohlman’s reasons. “There are no such stipulated requirements, and there are also no such criteria for selecting the eligibility of speakers,” says Skår. “One would expect the foundation to adhere to high standards of professional integrity and transparency.”

Stanley is now calling on the foundation to uphold its original decision to hold the meeting. “It is a matter of ethics,” says Stanley. “We have to stop such unethical behaviour before others cancel meetings months after they are announced.” Sohlman, however, told Physics World that the decision to cancel NS151 is “irrevocable”.


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