How muzzled are government scientists now?

A recent flurry of articles from Sun Media have appeared in the news over the past few days to question (a) whether muzzling has changed under the new Liberal government, (b) whether it was just made up in the first place by disgruntled scientists, or (c) it was all hype, or worse yet that the scientists had some alternative agenda in mind.

Let’s look at each of these and see what we can conclude on our own.

A. Muzzling hasn’t changed under the new government. The main evidence for this argument in this article is that PIPSC (the union representing government scientists) has indicated that not all departments are equally open, and a quote from Catherine McKenna indicating the official policy that’s in place around scientists communicating to the media, and how it hasn’t changed since the liberals took power.

First, I’ll agree that not all departments are equally open; after the instructions from the newly elected government to better facilitate communication, some departments have been better than others at lifting access to scientists. Some of the better among them (much to my surprise) has been DFO. I think we’ve heard a lot more news stories from scientists in Fisheries and Oceans, including stories about the barriers they faced previously to communicating their science; Kristi Miller and Max Bothwell among them. I think it’s fair to say that neither of those stories would have run under the previous administration.

Do other departments need to do a better job of both facilitating scientists communicating their research and helping promote government scientists, and does that vary across departments? Definitely. But keep in mind that when science departments were busy showing biologists and research scientists the door, they were also downsizing their communications departments, and these also need to see reinvestment. Communications professionals help publicize and facilitate the communication of the great work our federal dollars pay for.

One other point to keep in mind is that the folks in middle management- the ones that helped facilitate cuts to departments, and keeping a lid on science communications- are still there. The gang at the top has changed, but we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s resistance from the managing public servants that so dutifully carried out the reductionist mandate of the previous government.

Second- the official policy hasn’t changed. I’ll also agree with that. The problem is that the previous government wasn’t following the official policy- instead of allowing scientists to speak about their science (not policy, but science) without approval, this was clearly not the case (Max Bothwell’s experience was a great example of this, who was not granted an interview after 110 pages of e-mails among bureaucrats worried about upsetting the PMO at the time).

B. The issue was made up by disgruntled scientists. Citing the nearly 1,500 interviews that scientists gave leading up to the election, one of the articles seems to suggest that this is evidence of a lack of muzzling. More instructive would be what proportion of those interviews were denied (and remember, the policy since 2008 is that if the interview is about science, not policy, you don’t need permission, so one can ask why we have such good numbers on “granted” interviews in the first place). A survey conducted by PIPSC (the union representing government scientists) indicated that up to 40% of all media requests to scientists were denied in the years preceeding the last election. However, departmental reports would be more instructive to tell us the real numbers- hopefully that will be something revealed in the anticipated report by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, but there is no indication when that report will be released.

C. Despite the muzzle being off, we don’t see any news stories from government scientists. Again, plain wrong. Just because in the slow news days of summers we aren’t inundated by government science stories doesn’t mean it’s not being communicated (journalists and communications officers, and scientists, occasionally, take vacation too). Surely Mark Bonokoski knows that scientists aren’t usually calling up their reporter buddies to tell them their most recent findings- these usually come from press releases from journals, or in academics, from press offices of universities. For government scientists, these would come from communications departments, and that’s an area where I think reinvestment is still being made. Regardless, the evidence seems to suggest that when the journalists do call, the scientists are free to speak.

One example are the stories above from Miller and Bothwell regarding their experiences, which never would have happened under the previous government.

Miller has also talked about her ongoing research as well, something we needed a federal inquiry to hear about from her under the previous administration.

How about this: DFO scientists talking about their research on youtube (here and here). Great to see Lisa (Dr. Loseto, that is) being able to discuss her research program like this. Again, never would have gotten permission to do this previously.

Finally, look at any of DFO’s activity on it’s twitter feeds (@DFO_MPO, @DFO_Pacific, @DFO_Maritimes, @DFO_Science). Like never before, there’s interaction with the public, and promotion of regional science by regional scientists.

Are some departments doing better than others? Yes. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. But to suggest that everything is exactly the same and hasn’t changed is misleading and not supported by the evidence.

D. It was all some secret agenda (“their motives are suspect”). Maybe Mark should just pick up the phone and call a government scientist and see if he’s looped through a zillion approvals, or if he’s free to talk to the person about their research to test this theory. If newspapers want to promote conspiracy theories, that’s their prerogative. I’ll stick to the evidence.

So, after everything I’ve written here, am I surprised to be defending the government on science communication, especially DFO? A little, frankly, yes*. But maybe this response will encourage those departments to mount their own response, and demonstrate to the public what a good job they have done since October, and know they can do in the future in helping connect the public to the great science our government scientists are taking on.

___

*Don’t get me wrong, I still think a lot of what I wrote still holds true, and there’s all kinds of ways to help improve how federal science works. But it at least seems that they have started to recognize the importance of communicating the work of our scientists, from what I’ve seen since October.

Open your mouth and say… Science.

How refreshing.

bigstock-young-woman-shouting-with-a-me-330458091-620x350

DFO scientist after being alterted of new communications policies on Friday.

After much talk of “cautious optimism” from just about everyone regarding the new Liberal government in power in Canada, we are seeing some of that optimism being confirmed. I and many others have commented that the first and simplest step to restoring public trust in our government’s commitment to science would be to lift communications restrictions on scientists speaking about their research. After being arguably one of the most strict enforcers of government science “muzzling”, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was the first to announce to it’s scientists that there was a change in communications rules (see media stories here, here, here, and here). An announcement was also made by Environment Canada to it’s scientists Friday. Based on this statement from Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the other science-based ministries should be following suit this week, if they haven’t already.

Not only does this immediately improve the current perception of the new government with regards to how they value science- and perhaps more importantly, their scientists and the trust and respect this policy change says they have for them- but it is also a big olive branch and sign of good faith as PIPSC (the union representing most Canadian government scientists) prepares for bargaining. A clause defending “scientific integrity” was one of the platforms of their current bargaining position, and this policy change goes a long way towards checking that particular item off the list.

This is a wonderful, and badly needed policy move, in and of itself.

Now, the hard work starts. As I outlined in my many rantings here, and in other places, we now need to change the culture surrounding government science.

We need to make sure we have managers willing to make decisions, NOT the ones who were simply happy to pass information up the pipe and read our marching orders like we’ve had the past 5 years. Maybe we need a new system of management in government science departments altogether.

We need to reinvest in government science; hire new scientists, build new programs of research. Millions of dollars were stripped from government programs, and thousands of front-line jobs were lost. What few research dollars that came back were in highly targeted research areas. Provide a means for government scientists to address not only the “targeted” needs, but also to build their own research programs; you’d be surprised how good they are at finding and addressing the problems you have on their own.

We need to remove administrative barriers for hiring, travel and securing of external research funds. It can’t take 2+ years to hire new scientists and permanent staff. We have a broken Fisheries Act that is understaffed EVERYWHERE on the front lines; science, fisheries protection, and enforcement. Invest so that we can understand the resource, protect it properly, and enforce the act when it’s violated.

With a commitment to ministers being able to actually have some say in what happens in their departments, and this new change in communications policy for Canada’s scientists, it shows something the previous government seemed to have very little of: trust. If that trust permeates through a renewal in management, and can also be supported by commitments to reinvest in science in dollars and people, then the real change that’s needed to make government science work again might just happen.

I think I can now remove the “cautious” preface from my optimism regarding where things are headed for government science.

 

Reject (Gary Goodyear’s) Fear and Lies

CQXB-PBU8AEG7Tf

This pissed me off so much it made me come out of retirement on this blog.

So I (as I hope most of you did) listened with keen interest to the Science Debate hosted by Quirks and Quarks last weekend. I caught it when it was posted on Friday, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch it Saturday am (you can still find a link to the whole thing here: please give it a listen in case you haven’t).

Listening to Gary Goodyear (Conservative representative, and MP in Cambridge and former Minister of State for Science and Technology), I became furious with the level of misinformation given. I tweeted about it at length, and others have also taken to the blogosphere to set the record straight.

So, I storified it. Please feel free to check it out. I’ve added a few notes on tweets that might need some additional clarification (140 characters isn’t much).

 

Steve Campana knows how to make an exit

I haven’t written much here since leaving DFO, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

Steve Campana, a scientist with DFO for more than 30 years, retired this week to take up an academic position in Iceland. His exit speech is an encouraging piece of confirmation that I was not alone, as a DFO scientist, and that the issues I encountered weren’t just isolated to my region (Central and Arctic).

Take 20 minutes out of your day and listen to his interview on CBC’s The Current. The interview is here.

I was pleased to hear that the conversation was not just about the whole muzzling issue, but it raised all the other barriers to government scientists doing their job, that I’ve outline here; limiting access to external funds, administrative barriers to travel, hiring, communications, he pretty much does a great job of summarizing everything that is wrong with the current state of affairs in DFO science, and I can’t imagine other government departments are that different.

Steve’s assessment is that government science is in a death spiral, and that to get the department (DFO in this case) back to where it was even 7 years ago is nearly impossible given what’s been put in place now. I was only there for 4 years, and with the changes I saw even during that time, I have to agree.

While I’m happy I got out when I did, and am glad to have some independent confirmation of my own experience, it’s independent confirmation of a terrible state of affairs for government science. With every added voice to this issue, it’s another loss to the department.

 

Job satisfaction of Canadian government scientists tanking

As I try to move on to a more positive mind set, and leave the bitterness of my government science days behind me, I’m less inclined to keep this blog going on a regular basis.

But then I see a gem like this.

http://www.speakingupforscience.ca/news/2015/2/26/nrc-employee-satisfaction-dives-since-2011

Go and give it a read. If you’re not a government scientist (or was recently one, or work or live with one), the results are shocking. I, on the other hand, am just glad the news is getting out.

AND, if you haven’t yet started following SpeakUpForScience’s blog/mailing list, go sign up now. And if you’re on twitter: @speakupforsci. Some good stuff coming from there.

Is the government letting the Visiting Fellow program lapse? UPDATE- no, but reviewing it?

[Scroll down for update, 16 Jan 2014]

I recently received a shocking and disturbing e-mail from someone who came across this site. The gist of the e-mail is that this person was going through the Visiting Fellowship application process with NSERC to work in a government lab, but was recently informed by NSERC that:

“…the program has been put on hold until further notice. I have been told by NSERC that the Memorandum of Understanding between NSERC and the government expires at the end of January 2015 and if it’s not renewed, the program will not continue.”

This is the first I’ve heard of this, and a disturbing development if true. I had a VF working with me up until I left the government last year, and there was no indication during that experience that this was coming down the pipe.

Some background for those of you who are asking “What’s a Visiting Fellow”? A Visiting Fellow is a means of government labs hiring people at the Postdoctoral level to conduct research in a government setting. On the government side, it’s a fantastic program, because it attracts strong researchers who are highly motivated to publish, and can help achieve significant progress on a research program.

For the Visiting Fellow, it’s an important option for a postdoctoral position in a depressing landscape of few options. NSERC’s Postdoctoral fellowship program has returned to a success rate of around 20%, similar to what it was prior to 2011, when, due to funding cuts, only 1/2 the number of awards provided in previous years were made available. “Coming back” to 20% success rate hardly seems like it’s something to cheer about, until you look at the numbers and find that the success rate plummeted in the 2011 and 2012 competitions to 9 and 8%, respectively. [Sidebar: It’s worth noting that while the number of awards offered has grown since 2012, the increase in success rate is due largely to a fall in the number of applications- the policy since the 2013 competition is that you can make a single attempt at this award, and if you don’t get it, you can’t re-apply (previous to this you had two attempts); students now wait until they have the strongest possible application to apply, thus the drop in applications. Other postdoctoral funding opportunities can be equally competitive.]

Regardless, the point is that the Visiting Fellowship program is a pretty critical program for both the government labs that they work with and for the Fellows themselves. If the government is trying to quietly let this fade hoping no one will notice, I hope this post circulates enough to ensure that it is indeed noticed. Alternatively, it’s also entirely possible that someone just forgot to file the paperwork at the appropriate time and now the snails pace of the bureaucratic trail of approvals is taking it’s toll on the program being renewed. Either way, I am hopeful that either my colleague was misinformed, and if not, that this post might help speed up the renewal of the agreement for this vital program.

UPDATE 16 Jan 2014

Thanks to NSERC for their comment below, and context from some deeper digging by the lab and field. Their post provides the context for the current situation: not cuts, but rather a labour dispute:  https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/future-of-visiting-fellowship-postdoc-program-in-doubt/

Thanks to everyone for the attention to this- as indicated by Alex, the decision appears to have been poorly communicated and misunderstood by a number of the participating government departments. This is a labour dispute at the heart of the matter, for better or worse. If it leads to the demise of the VF program, it’ll be for the worse.

Negotiate *this*.

Last week, the union that represents government scientists (PIPSC, my former union) tabled a bold negotiating position with Treasury Board (the branch of the government that you negotiate with when you’re a Union), as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. Rather than making it about salary increases, or sick days, as one might have expected, their negotiating position puts the notion of scientific integrity front and centre. My first reaction upon reading a summary of their position was something like “Hell, yes”.

First, some background. Since the last time that they were at the bargaining table, PIPSC has watched this government systematically dismantling and fundamentally restructure the way that scientific departments operate under the federal government. Mandates changed. Facilities closed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in scientific inquiry, gone. Replaced by a focus on participation that directly involves the private sector. NRC shouldn’t do basic research, instead, they should help industry with their R&D. Want to do health research through CIHR? Better find an industry partner. Need to find a home for that 18 million dollar NMR, unique in the world and pushing the boundaries of scientific inquiry? Sorry Bucko, we’ll give you a few months to find a moving truck.

And then there’s all the stuff you don’t see, which I’ve outlined here before: a brutal administrative overload that’s put directly on researchers; additional barriers put in place to make seeking external funding more difficult; a maze of paperwork and approvals to hire even a 4-month summer student; restrictive policies around the approval of scientific publications; an approval process for conference travel that is beyond explanation or justification, the list goes on.

So, perhaps rightly, the union ought to be concerned that scientific integrity is not exactly front of mind for this government. But their move to make it part of the collective agreements is an interesting approach, one that could make it very difficult for future governments to upturn government science programs like we’ve seen since 2010. If it actually gets that far.

There are a few key pillars in what it sounds like the Union is putting forward, based on what’s been published in the Citizen so far:

1. The union has apparently proposed to work with the government to create a “scientific integrity policy” that would help to avoid issues around scientists having to seek departmental approval for the publication of results, or (presumably) being denied access to media to discuss those results. This would include what sounds like a “personal exemption” clause- one that would allow scientists to answer questions “in their personal opinion”, making clear they are not representing the department or the views of the government.

2. There is a proposal to ensure 37.5 hours per year to be dedicated to scientific conferences (public communication of research results), with approvals carried out in a timely and reasonable fashion, and refusals in writing.

3. A proposal to reinvest a portion of revenues from the sale of inventions and intellectual property to be re-invested in research programs. This proposal is fashioned on an incentive program that was in place for years under Treasury Board, but was axed in 2010.

Overall, this is a refreshing approach by the union, one that I suspect is a surprise to Treasury Board who was expecting a fight over sick days and short-term disability, one that (I think) will help cement the support of their membership in negotiations, and one that has the potential to gain significant traction with the Canadian Public as being characterized (accurately, in my opinion) as defending publicly-funded science. I’ve argued myself here that the current government may not take federal science seriously unless faced with some kind of dramatic action by the union; this is an unexpected and refreshing approach.

But I have to toss in my two cents on what I’ve seen so far, having thought about this a lot during the past few years. Overall, I think what’s being put forward sounds reasonable, but I’m not entirely sure where this “personal exemption” thing fits in, or whether it’s the right fit for every department. Frankly, I’d be pretty pleased to see federal scientists just able to speak about their research in the media. I’m even fine with receiving some support from departmental communications folks (I’m sure it’s appreciated in many cases), just not outright denials or being fed “speaking lines”. No federal scientist that I know wants to go out and use their research to speak out against government policy; we all agreed not to do that when we agreed to join the public service and follow our code of Values and Ethics, so I’m not entirely sure what this would be for. Also, the personal exemption clause could open up a can of worms in Canadian departments where the research informing the policy AND the enforcement of those policies are all under the same roof (e.g., Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada are two examples; compare that with a case where the roles are separated: Health Canada, which does the research, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which does the enforcement). In some ways, this leads to a larger discussion about how scientific departments are put together in the first place (e.g., maybe enforcement and research shouldn’t be in the same umbrella, as I’ve suggested here), rather than “freedom to communicate” per se.

Also a great proposal for professional development as well. However, I’d add there that “requests need to be answered in a timely fashion”. Better yet, set a deadline. Scientists are asked to submit requests a year in advance; surely with that much lead time, a 4-month turn-around is not so unreasonable to ask. It would save taxpayers a bundle in last-minute flights when approval for meetings is provided a day or two before…

Last, I was never in the business of making things that have market value, but if the government won’t invest in science, at least here’s a proposal to bring some back in. I will observe, however, that directing “income” to a specific program the way things are set up now is near impossible- any money that comes in goes straight to general revenue. There’d need to be substantial changes to the system to accommodate this.

Overall, it’s great to see the union come out with such a strong stand at the bargaining table. It’s hard to tell what the outcome will be, but after being pushed around by the schoolyard bully for years, it looks like PIPSC has had enough and is using their spot at the bargaining table as a means of fighting back. I know that if I was still a member, they’d have my full support. But I can’t help but feel like this is going to be one hell of a fight.

Cue Rocky theme song