Open your mouth and say… Science.

How refreshing.


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


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.

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:

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

Let my fellow scientists speak

For those interested, I have an op-ed appearing in the Ottawa Citizen tomorrow. For those who can’t get to a newsstand in Ottawa, the link to it is here.

Luckily, the folks at the Ottawa Citizen have a better knack for headlines than I do- this is a vast improvement over what I had suggested ;)

Apparently they have the rights to the piece now, but I am allowed to post an excerpt along with the link to what is now deemed the original (on their site). So here’s a teaser…


Six months ago, I was a government scientist. Then, the general consensus among my colleagues was that communications practice was more limiting than is reasonably necessary. Just last month, a letter signed by 800 international scientists echoed this sentiment, urging the Canadian government to “remove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”

This perception was verified as reality by a recent report by Evidence for Democracy that graded federal departmental policies on media access to government scientists. The grade average across 16 departments was a C-, with four departments failing and only one receiving a B or higher (Department of National Defence). Strikingly, Canada lags far behind departmental policies in the United States, both current and past.

But it’s worse than the report suggests. As the report acknowledges, policy is not practice, and evidence is mounting that the current practice in many departments is more restrictive than outlined in the policies. My former department, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), received a relatively high grade of C, despite widely reported cases in which media have been denied access to DFO scientists. Max Bothwell and Kristi Miller are two prominent examples.

I worked with DFO for nearly four years….

Okay, go read the post at the Citizen if you want the rest, and thanks for reading.

A big thanks to Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood at Evidence for Democracy for encouraging me to write the piece, for editorial suggestions and advice on how to submit an op-ed to the uninitiated.