The Science Minister's chief of staff warned the arm's-length agency that finances social-science research in Canada that it could lose any chance of an increase in the next federal budget over a controversial conference on Israel and Palestine, according to an internal e-mail.
The e-mail was written early in June by a senior staff member at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), and was obtained by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) under Access to Information legislation.
"Now we know they were using threats," said Jim Turk, the executive director of the teachers' association and a champion for academic freedom in Canada. He argues the government's actions threaten the ability of universities to be a place where controversial ideas can be debated.
At the time of the e-mail, the minister's office was pressing SSHRC to revisit its decision to provide $19,750 to Israel/Palestine: Mapping Models of Statehood and Paths to Peace, hosted June 22-24 in Toronto by York and Queen's universities.
Jewish groups had been complaining about federal support for the conference, which they objected to because it questioned Israel's right to exist.
Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, responded to those complaints by requesting that the council do a second peer review to see if the conference was still worthy of public funds.
"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," Mr. Goodyear said in a June 5 statement in which he asked SSHRC to reconsider its support.
That request prompted Mr. Turk to call for Mr. Goodyear's resignation.
He said the minister had undermined the peer-review process that allows federal funding requests for research and academic conferences in Canada to be independently assessed by committees of scholars without political interference.
The e-mail obtained by the CAUT is dated June 5 and marked "Extremely urgent." In it, SSHRC communications manager Trevor Lynn tells the council president that Mr. Goodyear's chief of staff told him that the issue was "so serious that it will make it hard for the Minister to recommend increased funding for SSHRC in the next budget."
Mr. Turk said it was a threat that if SSHRC didn't do the second peer review, it could lose badly needed funds.
SSHRC issued a written statement saying the "internal e-mail regarding comments by the Minister's Chief of Staff is inaccurate."
The statement also says it is "fully satisfied" with its handling of the matter, and that as a steward of public funds, it is expected to look into concerns about how awards are administered.
SSHRC did not carry out a second peer review. Instead, it asked conference organizers if any changes to the program had occurred since they had applied for federal money, and accepted their assurances that any modifications were minor.
Mr. Turk was skeptical about the statements that the e-mail was inaccurate, saying SSHRC must still be under enormous pressure from the minister's office.
"They must be scared to death."