Speaking out: some perspective

In a recent post over at desmog Canada, University of Victoria professor and climatologist Andrew Weaver made it clear that he thinks that Federal government scientists should risk their jobs (or what jobs they have left) in order to speak out against the recent federal cuts to environmental science programs that have ended many of the programs (e.g., Contaminants monitoring program, Experimental Lakes Area) that they once worked for. Andrew writes:

“I do not accept that they cannot speak out. I think they need to muster the courage to tell it like it is. There are federal scientists who can tell it like it is. I recognize that there are consequences but you know what? This is a crisis and you can’t rely on a few individuals outside the federal government to speak up.”

As a government scientist myself, while I agree in principle with Weaver, I can’t help but feel like he oversimplifies the issue.

A number of us scientists who have received affected letters (sidebar- for those not in the public service, an affected letter is one that says “your services may no longer be required”; surplus letters- the ones that say “we don’t want you anymore, here are your parting options”, are coming soon, we’re told) all entered the public service within the past 2-5 years. We are the ones that are now trying to figure out what direction to take- we are back on the job market, looking for academic positions or anything else so that we can pay our mortgages and feed our kids.  But we are still paying the mortgage this month because we still work for the government. For us, the risk of speaking out publicly is significant- doing so means losing our houses and who knows what for our families. While Weaver suggests that we should find courage at the defense of our union (PIPSC), they can’t really do anything to save us if we break the so-called “Values and Ethics code”, a condition of employment which we agreed to follow when we signed up for this job, for better or worse (and which we have been reminded of by our superiors on a frequent basis since these cuts began trickling down from above).

In contrast to my own position, a number of more senior folks already have academic positions lined up at various institutions in Canada, or have already left and are employed elsewhere. These are the people that, I would hope, like Andrew has said, would be among those now making their voices heard. So why don’t we hear them speaking out? Good question. In part, I think it’s frustration working for a government that year after year has cut budgets, making it clear they don’t value the work you do, leaving us to seek external funds and get creative to make our science move forward- science that they ultimately used anyway to guide policy and inform government. After being cut, I think some have just stopped caring. Others, I suspect, are waiting out their time to get their “transition packages”- up to a year of salary plus severance- before they take up their academic positions. Will we hear from them then? One can hope.

And then there are the brave, who are speaking out- Peter Ross, who has made at least two public statements (here and here) against the cuts to his program and to federal science. I have no idea if he’s suffered from these statements, but he is certainly among the few who have found the courage to speak out publicly. Others have found other ways- working in the background, helping with events around groups like the Coalition to Save ELA, the death of evidence rally on Parliament hill last summer, and letters issued by scientific societies around the world. All of which they could be fired for.

As for myself, I am interviewing for academic positions, and trying to find something that will allow me to continue to pay the bills. It is easy for someone who has tenure to tell the guy who has everything to lose that he should speak up. If Andrew would like to ask the University of Victoria to find us all alternative employment, I’ll be right there with him. Perhaps if and when he gets to Parliament Hill (running as a Provincial Green candidate now, down the road…?) he can help bring science back to the forefront, and make clear the importance of giving our government scientists the ability to communicate their research publicly. Until I have my job offer elsewhere, I’ll have to keep my objections anonymous.

And to be clear, I do object to the direction the government is going- I fully agree that there is a type of science- e.g., long-term monitoring- that only governments can really do well. The timelines are too long to be realistically supported by funding agencies that work on 5 year timelines or less, and we have nothing in Canada like the LTER program run by the NSF in the US. It appears some monitoring will continue- recent publications out by Environment Canada employees (with John Smol at Queen’s University) highlights recent work that is showing an ongoing role for government science in environmental regulation. However, this recent round of cuts- particularly within DFO of both the contaminants program and the Experimental Lakes Area– remove parts of that organization which, due to mandate changes many years ago, always had a difficult time justifying their existence within a branch of government that always argued that contaminants and water quality was someone else’s problem. This is DESPITE the importance of the work done by both groups. Whether these programs would have fared better under another department (Environment Canada for instance) is a bit of a moot point now.

Until I have my back-up in place, and feel like I can speak freely (and not behind the anonymous blog) I will have to hope that my colleagues that have managed to find themselves alternative gainful employment will take up the call on behalf of the rest of us, and join the objections that our colleagues in academics have made so clearly.