Returning the shout-out

Holy carp! I just got a shout out to this blog from Dr. David Schindler in his recent op-ed found in the Royal Society of Canada spring 2014 update. What a pleasure to know he’s among the readers of this site. It’s only fair that I return the favour, you can read his discussion piece here:

https://rsc-src.ca/en/about-us/our-academies/academy-science/spring-2014-update#Schindler

In a nutshell, Schindler discusses the recent events around the Experimental Lakes Area within the context of the general decline of federal science (and democracy in Canada) under the current government. It’s well worth the read. Among my favourite passages is this:

“As F.R. Hayes, the Chairman of the now-defunct Fisheries Research Board of Canada, astutely predicted in his book on the history of the FRBC, The Chaining of Prometheus, managers in the civil service “will slyly slip sawdust into the oats of the research donkey until the animal becomes moribund.” As described below, under the Harper Government, the diet of DFO’s current research donkey appears to contain no oats whatsoever. It is high time that research to underpin environmental policy is once again done at arms-length from the political process, as it was under the Fisheries Research Board.”

Hear hear.

The other strategy that seems fully rampant under the current leadership is to keep the donkey tied to a post and walking in circles so that he can’t get at the oats (or sawdust) at all- filling out endless reams of paperwork and watching it creep it’s way through the administratosphere for approval to perform seemingly simple tasks, like seeking travel approval, requesting library books, trying to staff positions, publication approval… issues that are also well summarized by a recent anonymous comment on this blog.

 

 

A call for contributors

passingthetorch

Passing the bunsen burner. Send me your rants on behalf of Canadian government scientists.

If one can blush on a blog, this might be what it looks like.

After posting my adieu blog last night, I was lucky enough to receive the following message, anonymously, over my contact page today:

“You’ve developed an incredibly valuable brand. Instead of letting the brand die, become its executive director and editor-in-chief. There are many out there who could be contributing content, if they felt safe doing so. You’ve been doing all the heavy lifting for a year and a half. Time for the community to start helping you.”

Aw shucks.

I will admit I had initially considered handing the blog off to the next person pissed off enough about the current situation in government science as I was (am), but was worried about doing so in a fashion that wouldn’t result in giving it to the wrong person and watching them hit “delete” on the whole site. So, I figured just letting this sit here in testament to my observations and outrage over the past one-plus years was better than nothing. Clearly, I can’t make too much more contribution on my end without looking disingenuous, as I’m no longer on the inside, but keeping this blog going with contributions from others is something I’d happily do, and maintain an outlet for the word to get out.

I have in the past been lucky enough to receive a few guest contributions (see here and here), so if I can keep this going with contributions from others, I’ll be happy to. Anyone can contact me safely and anonymously through the contact me page (no e-mail address required, or just type in a bogus one), and I’ll be happy to consider your contributions for posting here.

Thanks to those who have contacted me to encourage me to keep this page alive. Now, to my former colleagues in the public service: the rest is up to you.

Career advice from a government science ex-pat

One of the earliest posts I wrote generated this comment, asking about my perspective on career advice in the public service vs. other outlets for scientific research.

The main question was: would I recommend new graduates focus their job search toward private/industry research, versus government research? The short answer is, I don’t have a lot of experience doing private or industry-embedded research, so I’ll say right now that I am not qualified to make that comparison. Instead, I’ll turn the question a bit, and answer this: would I recommend that new graduates in fisheries or aquatic science consider a position in the public service, specifically with Fisheries and Oceans Canada?

Good question. One might guess from reading the many entries on this blog that perhaps I am challenged by the prospect of continuing on in the public service, let alone recommend it as an option to someone else. [NOTE: from the perspective of the postdoc working in the public service, see the guest post that a colleague of mine wrote here last year].

Let me try and frame my answer in the most positive light possible. When I look around me, many of my colleagues have succeeded as government scientists *despite* the barriers and issues they have faced in the past. New barriers are emerging, but I suspect that the same ones that have found past success will continue to do so in future. In large part (and I think most of whom I am thinking of would agree with me), the success of these folks depends on their ability to “find ways” to make things work around the barriers; get the science done *in spite* of the thousands of forms and rules and micromanaging. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are able to maintain these successful programs, despite the barriers they face.

So, if you are particularly tenacious, and perhaps looking to find an exceptionally difficult path from A to B, then a job with DFO science is a challenge I would definitely recommend. In all seriousness, the future of good government science relies on folks with that kind of attitude who are willing to take that challenge on. My fear is that many of my colleagues are just getting fed up of the barriers, and either giving up, retiring, or looking elsewhere. I now count myself among them.

I’m particularly worried about what future job ads for DFO research scientists might actually look like. Recently, our Assistant Deputy Minister traveled right across the country, to discuss plans for moving forward with the department. Lots of discussion around “more with less”, as expected, but he also described his vision for what the next iteration of DFO scientist might look like. What was described sounded more like a science coordinator than a research scientist. That is- beg for scrips and scraps of targeted departmental funding, partner with universities to get the work done, feed the applied science questions back to the department to inform policy. This sounds not so bad on the surface, and frankly reflects a good deal of how business is done these days. But this is reactionary science; someone high enough in the administratosphere has been told there is a problem enough times that they have allocated dollars to it, and that’s what’s getting the science done. What about funding your research scientists to do the work that anticipates the *next* big problem? There was a distinct sense from what I heard that this is not what government research is anymore.

Things seem fundamentally broken at the moment- the administrative load seems unrealistically heavy; despite losing massive numbers of front-line staff, our administrative architecture seems nearly untouched (remember, Tony Clement told us that exactly the opposite was going to happen with these cuts, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s numbers show is not the case), buoyed by new and exciting ways to make more forms and templates to fill out when seeking approval for a single task.

Perhaps one day things will change, but will it be soon enough to retain—and perhaps more importantly, recruit—the best and brightest? Do you need the best and brightest to carry out reactionary science, and simply do what’s asked of them? Is that the job of a research scientist? If not, what picture does that paint for government science in the future?

As for me, I’ve had it. I commend my colleagues for carrying on in the face of what felt to me like the plight of Sisyphus, I’m done pushing that particular rock. I’ll see how well I fare with getting to the top of the mountain somewhere else.

With that said, I’ve probably got at least one more post in me, but after that, I think that’ll be it for me running this blog. I’m looking forward to spending more of my time conducting science, and blogging about that instead.

Cue the music…

 

A case for Government Science outreach

From the time I was doing my undergraduate degree, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in science outreach. Specifically, designing hands-on activities and experiments to get people (and in my case, kids) excited and engaged about science. That they, too, can participate in that mind-blowing moment of discovery, where you go through a process and reach that “a-ha!” moment, and finally understand how it works, and what’s going on.

Why is this important? Because as a voting society, people need to be able to make reasonably informed choices. They need to be able to look at the plots of data around climate warming and it’s projected impact on society and convince themselves that there might be something going on and to be worried about, rather than relying entirely on the opinion of the person on the television that can shout the loudest.

[As a slight aside, I can't underestimate the importance of this kind of outreach. I grew up in a lower-income neighborhood, and even though I'm the only person from my peer group to complete any post-secondary education, while I like to think I was at least in the top 5%, a lot of those other smart kids ended up doing their own things (and making success on their own terms), or in some unfortunate cases, put those smarts to less productive endeavors. Part of the problem is that very few of the smart kids at that impressionable age get the chance to even realize that a. they are indeed smart, and that b. there is this unbelievable career in having your mind repeatedly blown in the STEM field; That science and math class can be interesting, cool and engaging. What better way to show this than by having scientists come and, not just show you, but get you to do what they do?]

I then joined the public service. I was surprised to find much more than passive interest in any kind of science outreach, and shocked to discover that we were afforded a single day of our public service per year towards volunteerism. Needless to say, my science outreach activities have since stalled.

Given recent changes in the public service, just about any kind of public science outreach is near impossible. Communications with the media are vetted beyond any sense of reason. Give a talks at a scientific conference, and expect a warning from your boss about what kinds of questions you can answer, or be provided with a minder. Travel to virtually anywhere these days is nearly impossible, and requires a level of bureaucratic acrobatics through paperwork that I still am unable to fully comprehend.

Contrast that with what the Government (and DFO specifically) says they want to do. To its credit, science outreach is specifically outlined in DFO’s recently published Science framework.  Under section 4.4 of the document, it states:

“A Strategic Science Outreach Strategy was developed to ensure that DFO Science proactively communicates with its clients. The key goals of the strategy are to:

  • Ensure that scientific advice is fully considered in policy development and decision-making;
  • Build public and stakeholders confidence and trust;
  • Explain DFO Science and the benefits for Canadians.

The emphasis is placed on using modern communication methods to deliver information and advice to our clients and stakeholders, and to the general public as well.”

Clearly, the department is concerned about it’s public image, and rightly so. Other summaries around the issues of science outreach from government scientists are well summarized here and here. But where is it now? This statement is coming from a department that operates a twitter account that’s about as interactive as my vacuum cleaner, and you can be sure that every tweet passes across 10 different desks before it ever sees the light of day.

It would seem that there is a vast chasm between where the department wants to be vs. where they are currently.

Part of the problem may lie in what the government has traditionally thought of as outreach. This passage on a not-too-long-ago Environment Canada page on Education and Outreach is telling. Based on their description, some glossy information pamphlets, a website entry or two, organized ad campaigns and some carefully controlled workshops is all you need for outreach. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be engaged in science outreach, people (kids included) need to connect with real people, not glossy pamphlets. So much can come from a personal connection, an education moment where you can give someone the opportunity to discover for themselves the importance of science in their lives.

It’s great to hear from at least one government department that science outreach is a priority in the future. But given the bureaucratic strangle-hold on everything from getting what you say approved to being allowed to walk out the door, to being able to dedicate more than a single day a year to volunteer somewhere and organize a science outreach activity, I can’t imagine how it will function under the current climate.

Hopefully the strategy will pave a way through the paperwork, and the noose can be loosened so that a real government science outreach strategy can become a reality.

A sad state of (library) affairs

Recently, I decided to test drive our new means of requesting material through the DFO library since ours closed last year. I wanted to see just how feasible it was, and see if the claims that this would increase efficiencies was anywhere near true. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit of a horror show.

Here’s a summary of my experience so far:

Timeline: It typically takes 4 weeks between the time when you request material to the time it appears in your mailbox. What appears in your mailbox is a giant grey zippered pouch for shipping the books back and forth, with clear instructions that only the book received can be sent back in the particular bag it arrived in.

Borrowing time: it’s supposed to be three weeks, but in every case so far, the start date of the borrowing time is anywhere from 3 to 7 days prior to the time I actually receive the material, meaning in reality that the time I have with the material is closer to two weeks.

Renewing items: random, at best. In one case, the item I ordered was through interlibrary loan, which meant I couldn’t renew the item and it had to be sent back to the university from which it was borrowed. I was lucky in that the librarian found me an on-line copy- not a DFO digitized copy, but one that was digitized by another agency and posted on-line (more on digitization in a moment). In another case, a renewal request was totally ignored. In another, there’s been no request to have the material sent back. I should also note that I have many items, from my understanding still in the collection, that are in my office from being on loan prior to the closure of our library.

Bags, bags, bags: Get more than 3 or 4 items in your office at once, and it’s a nightmare. Imagine doing a literature review- I can recall during my graduate degree (and even more recent than that) having anywhere from 20-30 books on loan at a time to review past literature on a given topic. Now imagine doing that using this system- 30 books, and 30 grey bags, strewn about the office, which you can’t mix up… the resulting nightmare is not a challenge to imagine. Never mind the 4 weeks that you’re having to wait for every item you order. Just getting the material you need in place could take a year.

Now, this wasn’t supposed to be a big issue, because the department was digitizing their entire collection, right? Wrong. According to recently posted order papers, digitized holdings represent less than one percent of the DFO collection, and the “initiative” to get things digitized relies on what overworked librarians remain tending the catalogue to do it in their spare time. Some initiative.

If this is “modernization” and somehow meant to improve things, it’s certainly not improving my ability to do my job. How this process is saving any money, vs. maintaining a single librarian on staff at each site to manage the previous collection (plus the added time it takes me to get the material and even do anything with it) is beyond me.

It came from the Blogosphere

While I must apologize for my lack of blog activity this past while, I am happy that others are more active than I, and would like to take a moment to highlight some recent doozies to which I spent most of the time nodding in agreement whilst reading. I thought it would be worth sharing a few of these posts.

1. In response to the Government’s recent call for consultation on it’s Science and Innovation Strategy, a number of people have made some excellent responses and have posted them. Not suprisingly, few seem to think that the government’s proposal is on the right track. Some posts that I’d recommend reading are below:

A thoughtful response from Evidence for Democracy

An aptly titled response: Seizing Canada’s Scientists by Graham Larkin

Another great response from Iva Cheung

2. A damning list (prompted by the recent changes to the elections act, which are frankly quite scary) of the continuing ways in which the current government continues to change the shape of our current democracy, by Sarah Boon, I want my Canada back. I don’t think Sarah is alone on this one.

If you haven’t already, please take a second to see what these folks have to say.

DFO provides Christmas gifts for scientists

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and to celebrate the holidays, Fisheries and Oceans Canada generously opened the doors of it’s Eric Marshall library earlier this month for any and all to pillage.

“BF Manly’s Randomization, Bootstrap and Monte Carlo Methods in Biology? Aw, Mom, you shouldn’t have!!” Yes, imagine the glee on so many children’s faces this Christmas as they light up having been given the cast-offs of DFO’s library holdings.

While the Department has issued numerous statements indicating that the material in the library is digitized, and “rare” texts are being consolidated at other institutions, the fact of the matter is that when the current librarian retired in July, she was nowhere near completed her task of digitizing material or of even simply cataloguing what was held at the library, and the “closure” at this particular facility has been a total gong-show. However, this seems to be par for the course, as DFO showed us what consolidation looked like at the Maurice Lamontange Institute earlier this year.

When the doors were swung open at the Eric Marshall Library for anyone to help themselves, a majority of the collection to be shipped still wasn’t packed; shelves that were supposed to be “off limits” were marked clearly with- clear packing tape. Yes, a single strip of clear packing tape across an entire shelf, much of which was falling off the first day. The person supervising on that first day was prompted to put up some signs when it was clear people were walking off with this (yet uncatalogued, unpacked but supposedly rare enough to be designated to ship somewhere else) valuable material.

The taking was mostly unmonitored- there was someone at the desk for the first day, who was not interested in seeing what people had in their boxes as they walked out the door, and people were in and out all week under no supervision whatsoever.

What has been lost with the closure of the Eric Marshall Library? Because the physical catalogue was incomplete, it’s a shame that we’ll never know. Even if people walked off with catalogued books, there’d be no way to trace them because the pillaging was unmonitored. Most scientists in the building are still trying to find room on their office bookshelves for what they managed to pillage. As are the many consultants and researchers from the province and other NGOs who grabbed what they could.

Keeping with the Christmas spirit, we hope that DFO will generously donate the remainder of the collection to pensioners to ward off the cold Winnipeg winter.

Ho, ho, ho.

In conclusion, I thought I’d finish off with another perspective on all of this. While they aren’t my words, I thought I’d use this space to republish the musings of another anonymous government scientist concerned about the loss of this irreplaceable resource. The text was originally published here.

The loss of seven out of nine DFO regional science libraries is a big tragedy.

Here is a link to one comment suggesting it was an act of “Libricide.”

The first step in the process was to move the libraries from Science into Information Management and Technology Services (IMTS) several years ago. At that point DFO Science became merely a client of another sector of the department for library services. It is not known whether DFO Science management put up any opposition to the cuts when IMTS announced their plans last year.

IMTS operates under a corporate business model. Under this model, one sector of government sells its services to another sector of government with the objective of providing the least amount of service for the largest possible service fee. This would seem to be a very bad business model for running a government department that has the prime objective of long-term public good — giving the public the best return possible on their tax dollar across all sectors of government though working co-operatively.

The decision to cut the libraries was made by executives within DFO rather than imposed by higher levels of government. It was done without any prior consultation with the DFO research community and researchers have been kept largely in the dark throughout the process. There has been very little information provided to DFO science staff or the public throughout the process.

The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.

Each of the seven regional libraries had thousands upon thousands of items in their holdings including unique valuable material of local regional significance documenting research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries carried out in the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as more recent grey literature such as laboratory reports, consultants reports, research vessel survey reports, reports of commissions of enquiries into fisheries etc.

The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever.

Local staff in the regions were given a brief opportunity to scavenge through the piles of books, journals and documents not wanted by the remaining two DFO Science libraries. Books and other library material already on loan to researches were never recalled, indicating a chaotic and haphazard process.

No explanations have been provided with regard to how the limited space in the remaining two DFO Science libraries will accommodate material from the regions deemed (by whom?) too important to destroy. One can only assume that the amount of material not being dumped is relatively small.

The official DFO statements have indicated that an “alternate service delivery system” is to be put in place to meet the library needs of the regions and that operations will not be affected by the library closures. To date this alternate service delivery system is not in place and no information has been provided on what form it will take.

The impact of the library closures on both the operations and the morale of DFO research staff have been immense.