Archive for April 11th, 2007

Nature on the Claudio Mendoza case part II: Editorial: When Employees Attack

April 11, 2007

When Employees Attack
. Editorial in Nature, Vol 446, 702 (2007)

Government scientists should be able
to comment publicly — within reason.

Badmouthing one’s government is a
fashionable pastime in some parts of the world. Many US climatologists, even those who
receive federal funding, have grave reservations about the White House’s
continued neglect of international climate agree­ments, and they aren’t shy
about saying so. In Britain,
meanwhile, scientists as well as political analysts have been quick to
criticize the government’s plan to spend billions on renewing the national
fleet of nuclear-weapons submarines.

Roll those two examples together, and
transplant them into a soci­ety where freedom of speech is often seen as being
under pressure from several directions, and you get the case of Claudio
Mendoza. Until recently the head of a government physics laboratory in Ven­ezuela, Mendoza has been demoted after making
sarcastic comments about the government over what he regards as its tendency to
ignore scientists and their advice (see page 711).

What infuriated Mendoza’s paymasters most was probably his
suggestion — made in a newspaper article promoting a play about nuclear weapons
— that president Hugo Chávez might want to pur­sue a nuclear-weapons programme and
that, if he did so, he was liable to fail because of this alleged disdain for
expert advice.

Mendoza’s comments
were not made in any official capacity (his article was signed, with no
affiliation given), raising the fraught ques­tion of whether senior government
scientists should be free to make disparaging public comments about the state
institutions that they serve, when they are away from work.

On a facile level, this is a
disagreement about whether it is accept­able for someone to be fired because
their bosses can’t take a joke. In many countries, acerbic comments about the
machinations of politics are a valid and effective mode of public discourse.

But, of course, a line has to be
drawn somewhere. It is hard to escape the feeling that, in this case, it has
been drawn in the wrong place. Many civil servants in other countries might
expect a dress­ing-down if they behaved
in this way, but might justifiably argue that
they have a right to express a grievance. The message coming from
Mendoza’s bosses
the Venezuelan national research institute is an unsavoury one. His
removal from a management position implies that someone who voices contrary
opinions is not
fit to be a lab head. What’s more, Mendoza has been warned that he had better
clam up
if he doesn’t want to lose his job altogether.

The play that Mendoza was writing
about was Michael
Frayn’s Copenhagen, the
international hit that deals with a crucial 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and
Werner Heisenberg, and their struggle to comprehend the feasibility and consequences
of devel­oping nuclear weapons during the Second World War (see
Nature 394, 735; 1998).

One of the reasons for the play’s
success was general
interest in what physicists of Bohr’s generation thought about
the issues surrounding
nuclear weapons. Of course, these thoughts
only became public some time after the United States had built and used
the bomb. But times have moved on, and people in Caracas, as elsewhere, would benefit if their
scientists were be able to participate openly in public debate on nuclear

Nature on the Claudio Mendoza case part I: Venezuelan Free Speech Row goes Nuclear

April 11, 2007

The prestigious scientific journal Nature had double coverage of the case of Venezuelan scientist Claudio Mendoza, which I have talked about a few times here. I will make two posts with the material from Nature, in this post I will post the news item reported by the Journal and in the next one, the Editorial which was obviously prompted by the news itself and the clear threat to freedom of speech implied by Claudio’s removal or the words of the Director of IVIC, who clearly threatens Dr. Mendoza in his last sentence, no?

Venezuelan Free Speech Row goes Nuclear in Nature by Michael Hopkin, Vol 446, page 711 (2007)

Freedom-of-speech groups have
expressed concern at the treatment of a prominent Ven­ezuelan physicist who has
been fired as head of a government research lab after poking fun at the
government over nuclear policy issues.

Claudio Mendoza was stripped
of his posi­tion as head of a computational-physics lab in the Venezuelan
Institute of Scientific Research (IVIC) in Caracas
because of comments he made in an article written to promote a science-related
play. He sarcastically suggested that Venezuelans should not worry about their country’s growing alliance
with ‘rogue’ nuclear states such as Iran,
because Venezuelan officials do not listen to experts and so would not be able
to develop nuclear technology anyway.

Although Mendoza
is still a researcher in the lab, his
dis­missal as head after 10 years raises fears that his right to free speech
has been infringed, says Juan Carlos Gallardo, chair of the American Physical
Society’s Committee on International
of Scientists. The com­
mittee has written to Venezue­lan
officials to request details of
the case. Although no other
scientists there have reported similar harassment, the government has been
accused of waging a campaign against freedom of speech in the media, and the
fear is that similar repression is now extending to the research community.
Gallardo has pledged to monitor the situation and take further action if Mendoza
is sacked outright.

Mendoza says he has been accused of
even though his comments were meant to be witty and
he was not writing in an official capa­city. His remarks were published on 13
Septem­ber 2006 in an article to publicize a production of
Copenhagen by
British playwright Michael
Frayn. The play
dramatizes a discussion between
physicists Neils Bohr
and Werner Heisenberg
about the feasibility of
developing nuclear
weap­ons. Addressing fears that Venezuela might seek to join the nuclear club, Mendoza
wrote: “Here bridges are built without engineers, diagnoses
are made without doctors, oil is refined without petroleum experts, one can teach without being a teacher, you can govern without being a states­man. We will therefore explode nuclear energy while
ignoring the physicists.”

But it seems that nuclear policy is no joking matter. Although Venezuela has no nuclear
pro­gramme of its own, it has significant reserves of uranium ore, and in 2005 Venezuela announced that it
would join forces with Iran
to develop domestic nuclear power. Venezuela is also thought
to have endorsed Iran’s
controversial uranium-enrichment programme, although without a seat on the UN
Security Council, it
was unable to influence the
council’s unanimous
vote in December 2006 to ban
the project.

Four days after the article
was published, IVIC’s board of directors removed Mendoza
as lab head, and gave him 30 days to provide
evidence of his apparent insin­uation
that Venezuela
might be planning to enrich uranium. Mendoza
submitted a dossier of newspaper articles but this was rejected as sufficient
proof. When asked to retract his arti­cle, he refused.

The article was “the last
drop” in a series of altercations in which Mendoza
has criti­cized his paymasters, says IVIC director Máximo García Sucre. In
2003, for example, Mendoza complained
that the govern­
ment was not giving enough
financial support to IVIC — a claim denied by IVIC directors (see
Nature 422, 257; 2003).

“He has manifest many times
his noncon­formity with IVIC decisions,” García Sucre told
Nature. “In a
certain sense he is an activist. In this situation it is not possible to be
head of a lab — there must be a minimum of affinity with
scientific politics.” He adds that such personnel changes are routine, and that Mendoza
still has all the rights of any IVIC staff member.

Mendoza says that he is unsure whether he
will be dismissed entirely. “I don’t think I will
try to get reinstated as head. I am just basically trying to survive as a researcher,” he says.

“I hope he will understand that the measure that has been
taken is a mild one,” says García Sucre, adding that in making fun of
government officials, Mendoza
has indirectly criticized pres­ident Hugo Chávez. Asked whether Mendoza
will be fired outright, García Sucre says: “He should start to work in his lab
instead of being in the newspapers all the time saying he is being victimized.
Then I don’t see any problem.”

So who should I root for?

April 11, 2007

So, who do you root for when it is your country´s up and coming baseball pitching star, against your favorite teams news star from Japan?