A survivor’s guide to being a muzzled scientist

I figured it would be a good idea to summarize some of the thoughts I have from having lived through this in the Canadian government to offer some ideas to colleagues in the US who are now entering what seems to be a similar (if not worse) era of limiting communication from government scientists and (possibly?) down-weighting scientific evidence in policy decisions, particularly as they relate to the environment and natural resource extraction. This comes from having worked for the Federal government for 4 years, the last two of which were under a conservative majority government which resulted in deep cuts and heavy top-down control of how things were done and approved. This blog was spawned from my experience cumulatively, but especially in the last two years when it seemed like everyone I knew was being laid off or reassigned and it literally felt like the philosophical foundations of scientific inquiry within the federal government were crumbling. While it wasn’t much fun, I can say I learned a lot from that experience, and hopefully some of what I learned can be used by others who are now going through the same thing.

Feel free to look through the pages of this blog for inspiration- much of it will be specific to the situation we found ourselves in, but other aspects may provide some thoughts as to how to deal with the current situation in the US. Recognizing that not many folks have the time to go reading all my old blog posts, I figured I could summarize some of what I felt were the most important bits from my experience. Keep in mind that I ultimately left the public service, but much of what I have below was a successful survival strategy for me when I had no other options.

With that said, here are my humble suggestions (in no particular order):

1. Get a personal e-mail address, use it on your home computer. Take a page from Hilary; these aren’t state secrets, but it’ll give you the opportunity to communicate with colleagues without having your employer watching your every move. Particularly important if you want to start up your own anonymous blog (like this one used to be), or are taking other actions to try and loop around the restrictions you now find yourself facing.

2. Get anonymous, get online. Twitter, a blog, etc. This is a great way to let people know what’s going on on the inside. Note that it also means that media won’t always be able to carry the stories you post- I had a couple of instances where the editors nixed quotes from me (through anonymous interactions with journalists) because they couldn’t verify my identity, but you have an outlet nonetheless.

3. Involve university collaborators in all your work and publications. Not just because they are colleagues, but because this strategy can ultimately save the communication of your work. This breaks down into several important sub-themes:

A. Communicating your science. Even though you can’t comment on the work, your collaborator can. This is extremely important to ensure you have at the study design stage- in cases in the past where other scientists tried to discuss the findings of Canadian government researchers that were not permitted to comment on their work (e.g., Kristi Miller at DFO), those scientists didn’t always get it right, or communicate the important points. Collaborators can do this effectively.

B. Data availability and sharing. Protect any and all data agreements you have in place, and in all cases ensure that university collaborators have a copy of the datasets.

C. Copyright release. Can’t get approval from your supervisor for copyright release on that paper? One strategy would be to take your name off and let your collaborator submit it, with something like the following in the acknowledgements: “The significant roles of EPA scientists A, B, and C could not be formally recognized through authorship due to their agencies’ denial to sign off on copyright release of this work, and are recognized here.” Ideally this wouldn’t happen, and it might hurt publication records of government scientists during this interim, but it will get the work out there vs. Being denied supervisory sign-off. And presumably granting agencies on the other side of this (should they exist) will accept explanations for publication gaps where this can be recognized in acknowledgements.

4. Recognize that not all of your colleagues will want to do what you are doing. Your neighbour who is supporting 3 young kids on a single income will likely not want to take the risk of rocking the boat. I was in that place for a very long time, until I finally cracked and decided that the voice of my colleagues needed to get out, and I provided that venue and perspective which was to that point missing from the discussion.

5. All of us need to help educate the public on why government science matters and how it’s different from academic funding and projects, as well as the important role of science in informing good and effective policy decisions when it comes to the management of natural resources and the environment. There are plenty more examples out there, we need to make sure people know about them. There are also lots of great ways to analyze data to show where policy decisions that aren’t based on science are demonstrably wrong and unfounded.

6. Get engaged with your union. The public service in Canada is unionized, and the actions taken by the Federal government there under Harper ultimately led to including wording around the communication of science in the most recent round of bargaining. By poking around on the internet, it looks like EPA scientists are represented by the “National Treasury Employees Union”. While it looks like you can’t strike, you can do things like “informational picketing” and other actions. The NTEU has a history of securing change through litigating the federal government- I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this again if it gets really bad.

Hopefully it doesn’t get quite as bad as it did in Canada, where the House of Parliament actually voted against the value of science in policy decisions. And then gave each other high-fives after doing so (seriously).

Don’t forget, we’re all in this together, and it’s up to all of us, no matter what country we are in, to help combat the current war against objectivity. People need a reminder that there’s an important difference between “up” and “down”, even when the President and it’s spokespeople are trying to convince us that down is up, and never mind what anyone else tells you.

Facts, or lies. There is no “alternative”.

I thought I was done with this blog, but a white house press secretary spewing lies that are so easily discredited being defended by Kelly Conway this past weekend just about made me throw up. You can watch the whole disaster of a train-wreck here, and you should, just to appreciate the scope of what the next four years will be like for our southern neighbors and biggest trading partner in Canada.

It’s also worth a reminder that I am a refugee Government Research Scientist (Canadian) from the Harper days- I was lucky enough to find another opportunity and quit while I could, having now moved on to greener pastures (and yes, things are better on the inside now), but when the press secretary under Harper is coming down on you for having lost your credibility, you know it’s bad.

I know this is as crazy to read as it is for me to write it, but to my friends in the US, your government is lying to you. Which is how crack-pot conspiracy theory posts start, but this time it’s verifiably true, the representatives of the government of the United States of America are actually lying to the public. After a single day in office.

There are two responses I’ve seen today from this mess that I’d like to share, both via Phil Plait (@badastronomer; one is his, the other he shared). First is one that not just scientists but EVERYONE needs to keep in mind:

Indeed. We can argue about which policy decision makes the most sense, and have a good, heated debate over how much money we should be spending on this vs. that. But 2 + 2 = 4, not 5. If Sean Spicer and Kelly Conway wants to get up and tell us all that 0 + 2 = 1, as an “alternative fact”, we need everyone, EVERYONE to call this for the bullshit that it is. Otherwise we’re living 1984 in 2014.

The second was this, outlining what looks like facebook post from Dan Rather:

Emphasizing that it’s everyone’s job, including the people in power, to be able to call bullshit when they see it. This is not a small matter.

We all need to be concerned about this- not because anyone really cares how big an inaugural crowd is, but if you’ll lie about that, what will you do when it’s something of actual importance?

In Canada, when the Prime Minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, we have another election. I don’t know much about how US government works, but I’d say there’s a general lack of confidence in this white house at the moment. Or there should be.

Look, I’m a scientist, and as such somewhat invested in making sure that we can agree on objective truths- there are four oranges in this basket, not five, or three. Because that’s how science works- we can all look at an experiment, or an observation, and repeat it, and say “Yes, I get the same answer”. What I hear now sounds like an attack on objectivism, which is far more dangerous than simply waging war against your government research into climate change. It means you aren’t just willing to deny climate change, but much simpler things like “I see this many people” or “Donald Trump never said that”. Denying the truth moving forward and trying to rewrite history is something I would rather get freaked out about reading dystopian novels, not something I want to encounter in real life for the next four years.

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.


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.