Government scientist muzzling: perception, reality, and towards workable solutions

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I’m posting a response to Andrew Leach’s recent response to my response… you get the idea, it’s an engaging and ongoing debate around the muzzling of government scientists and their ability to communicate their findings with the public.

On the plus side, there is now a public discussion about this issue that wasn’t happening a few days ago, which is fantastic. Only through discourse will we be able to really identify the problem and come up with solutions. Also, I think that Dr. Leach’s views are very similar to my own, and that we agree on a lot of the same things. That is, I am now quite certain Dr. Leach is not suggesting that scientists who publish some interesting paper on some interesting topic should not be able to put those results into lay terms and communicate them broadly when asked by the media.

What does concern me is that government managers are going to read Andrew’s original piece and say “See? Our worst fears are confirmed. Our scientists are chomping at the bit to call foul on anything they can, given any chance they can, so thank goodness we have such a locked-down, convoluted process for media approval so we can keep a lid on things.” I hope that doesn’t happen, and I think the truth is quite the opposite from this, for a number of reasons, which I hope to better outline below.

To reiterate, the part of the debate that Andrew has decided to focus on, or the area of this debate which most interests him, is the notion that government scientists, and their supporters, seek to be unmuzzled so as to raise alarms or seek a means of calling the government out on policy decisions- a role, that Andrew points out, is reserved for Officers of Parliament (e.g., those whose task it is to call the government out, like the Auditor General). In his response, and I think in partial defense of his original thesis, Dr. Leach refers to the recent survey that PIPSC released (this is the union to which I used to belong, representing those in the public service whom are engaged in Scientific research), which indicated that a large chunk (86%) of those surveyed “do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department” faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health. Is this what we expect of government scientists to do? Do we expect government scientists to realistically be put in this position in the first place, to play a role in holding the government to account?

“Maybe that’s not what anyone expects, and if so, that’s fine by me.”

I would like to think that most of us in this muzzling debate are on the side of saying that’s not what we expect, so great, we’re in agreement. As Dr. Leach points out in the first part of his response, this is a large, convoluted issue, with many aspects in terms of how government can limit scientific investigation through either program funding, staffing, and the like, all of which deserves a broader discussion. For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on the specific thesis under discussion.

Perception

In many ways, this debate, I think, boils down to perception. For instance, one could conclude that those higher up in government might actually share Dr. Leach’s concerns, as a justification for the current communications policies they have in place. Officially, you’ll be told that it’s Ministers that are the face of their departments, and are therefore the ones who should be talking about the work in their departments, not scientists. But that’s clearly not always the case- Heritage Minister Shelly Glover is not the one being quoted in the media about the Franklin Expedition, it’s Ryan Harris, a senior Parks archeologist. We do occasionally hear from government scientists from time to time, so clearly that’s not the issue.

It’s important to note that to defend the part of the debate that Andrew is most interested in, he is turning to the perception of those in a survey to do so. To be fair, he fully recognizes the subjective nature of the survey, but let’s dissect it a bit anyway, in the context of the current debate. There is a perceived notion among the majority of those surveyed that they are unable to share concerns around some scientific finding that would contravene government policy. First, it’s important to note that the question is a bit leading (“e.g., you know something that your family doesn’t that will harm them- would you tell them even if your employer says you can’t?”). The perception (and the question asked in the survey) presupposes that the government, having reviewed the evidence, had already willingly decided to put either human health of Canadians or the environment at direct risk; within the context of the current discussion, it also supposes now that a scientist has shown this risk over the course of a scientific study, the findings of which have been published in the scientific literature, but is not made available for comment to speak about the study. I think there are very few examples where this might truly be supported by actual examples- e.g., actual cases where the government is knowingly forging ahead despite the (published) risks outlined by their own scientists as published in the peer-reviewed literature, and were made unavailable for comment for fear they’d put these risks in more clear terms. Does a true disregard for the voting electorate like this occur commonly enough to justify such a perception among government scientists? I would suggest it isn’t, but could be convinced if shown evidence to the contrary (that’s the great thing about evidence-based decision making!). I’ll make the point here that this perception among government scientists makes for a weak defense of the original thesis. To move forward then, let’s ask the question, where does this perception among government scientists come from?

Reality

What we DO observe when we look at the track record of government science muzzling is that studies reporting seemingly innocuous results that have little import to government policy (e.g., studies about snowfall patterns or floods that occured 13,000 years ago) are the examples we hear about where government scientists are unable to communicate their results outside of the original publication- e.g., publish in the scientific literature, but fat chance if CBC or CNN wants to talk to you about it. Knowing that, put yourself in the shoes of all the other government scientists. If they aren’t going to let this person talk about this study, then what do you think they’d do if you conducted a study that makes their policies look bad?

Further, as mentioned before, every public servant- scientists, to administrative assistants, summer students, right up to the Clerk of the Privy Council signs the values and ethics code, where you agree that you’ll never speak out against the government or it’s policies while under it’s employment. So you start off from that perspective. Presumably, this gives the government all the power it needs to ensure it’s scientists don’t call them out on policy. As C. Scott Findlay pointed out in his response, it’s not the scientists whom are looking to question government policy- that’s for someone else, like the voting electorate.

Workable solutions

Dr. Leach ends his piece with a call for proposals of workable solution. Here’s one. Be okay with people being responsible for their own actions, and let people do the jobs they were hired to do. Nearly all the decision-making power in the federal public service these days is at the highest levels of administration. Need travel approval? Goes to the Assistant Deputy Minister. maybe higher. Need to hire someone? Get approval from your Regional Director, maybe higher. Have a media request? Good luck. In each case, there are often 3-5 levels of administration between the scientist making the request and the person doing the approval. Why is all the decision making so centralized? Surely these decisions can be made by people who are closer to those making the requests.  I’m all for some kind of approval mechanism, but surely it could be less convoluted than it is. Trust government scientists to follow the values and ethics code that they agreed to follow when you hired them. In short, trust your staff. Demonstrating to your staff that you trust them by delegating responsibility would be a great first step in resolving these issues. Keeping all the decision-making power so centralized just makes people feel undervalued.

Is this suggestion prescriptive enough? Perhaps not. Does it give clear guidelines for when it’s okay to limit communication vs. not? No. It forces managers (and scientists themselves) to use their common sense, seek guidance from their supervisors when needed, and follow the agreement they signed when they became public servants. As this current exchange between Dr. Leach, myself, and many others has made clear, this is a broad debate with many facets, but maybe we can start here.

Unmuzzle the scientists? Yes, please.

Never one to shy away from being provocative, Andrew Leach wrote an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine about why we as a society should be okay with our federal government being in control of the messaging of the research performed by it’s public servant scientists. In it, he envisions government scientists waving the flag of their evidence-based discoveries against all other considerations for informing policy, because, surely, they must think this is the only thing worth considering.

Perhaps to suit the tone of the article, Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely. To be fair, his main premise is: should government researchers be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers?

In many ways, this point is moot from the start. See the Values and Ethics code we all signed when we started our jobs with the federal public service. Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government. To do so would be grounds for dismissal. But why not let them talk about their studies and results, without the policy-related questions? People do it all the time in interviews, including academics- just listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC- few scientists are tromping out the “what we should be doing”, the vast majority are just really excited about the work they’ve done. E.g., state the facts, and conclusions, in an unbiased fashion, as we’d all like to do, and have the capacity to inform the public about our science. Over twitter, Andrew suggests that having their papers read by other scientists should be enough, but even he can appreciate the added buzz that goes along with articles when it ends up in the public discussion- he writes for Maclean’s, after all!

Returning to Andrew’s point in the article, to suggest that scientists think that their evidence should be considered above all else with regards to forming public policy (or, as Andrew puts it, “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”),
pays little credit to the intelligent folks that are employed as government scientists. Having recently been one, we are all keenly aware of all the other issues at play in shaping good public policy, and that the scientific evidence under consideration (be it health impacts, environmental impacts, discoveries of other scientific importance) is only one part of the equation. An article that I’ve pointed to many times here by Jake Rice, Senior Scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, would seem to demonstrate that we are keenly aware of the nature of science and scientific evidence in informing public policy, and the need to keep that science free of bias such that it receives proper weighting at the policy table. That is NOT to say that it’s the only thing to consider, but when folks look back 30 years later on the cod stocks of Newfoundland, we can clearly evaluate what happens when policy makers place emphasis on short-term economic gains in the face of longer-term ecological (and ultimately, economic) stability.

In many ways, NOT letting government scientists do the talking is backfiring for the government, and badly. My strategy before leaving the public service was to make sure that I had university co-authors on any paper I published, to make sure that someone would be able to discuss the results. However, as Andrew pointed out in his article, university researchers are not as bound as the government’s own scientists with regards to what they can say. Take, for example, the recent PR disaster facing Environment Canada and NRC over John Smol, and the government research paper that he was involved in. Do you think that, were the lead government scientists permitted to discuss their research, that they would have had the same messaging as Smol? No way. Government scientists are bound by their Values and Ethics code of conduct, and are repeatedly reminded of it. Give them a chance to show that they know how to conduct good science, and can communicate it, too, without getting fired or going through the 7 circles of administrivia to get permission to talk about it.

As Andrew says, “If you want to take the muzzle off government researchers, that’s fine if you want it for the right reasons. I’m all in favour of increasing the quality of information available both to our decision-makers and to the general public.” Here here. So why inflame the discussion by suggesting that the issue of muzzling is about something that it’s not?

I also agree with Andrew that there is a strong role for Government science, both with regards to the science one can do under it (as opposed to under academic science), and with the spot it gives you at the table when it comes to forming policy- that’s outlined in an early post over here. Ironically, though, since internal science capacity is so strapped with all the recent cuts to federal research departments, it’s groups like the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society that are in talks with the government now, keen to fill the holes that have been left. It seems that when you kick the scientists out of government, they get jobs in academia, and still try to give you the advice you employed them for in the first place.

And PS, Andrew, not all of us wear lab coats; something I am sure he is keenly aware of being a colleague of David Schindler. I tried my best to find the stereotype of economists, but I hate to say they weren’t terribly flattering. Of course, I don’t suggest nor have any reason to believe that these apply to Andrew, but that’s what you get with stereotypes in public writing. Andrew is a great writer, and has a lot of insightful things to say in his articles, but I feel like this one misses the mark entirely.

 

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.