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.


7 thoughts on “Speaking out: some perspective

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your story, this is a great overview of why it’s so difficult for gov scientists to speak out. I was one of the organizers on the Death of Evidence rally and am currently working on another campaign focused on the muzzling issue specifically. I’d love to talk to you about this. You can contact me at katiemgibbs (at) gmail.com. Thanks!

    • Thanks Katie for your support- I’m familiar with the fantastic work you did on the Death of Evidence. I’d be happy to discuss with you further- expect a DM from me shortly.

  2. Weaver should first direct his call for courage at fellow academics with tenure across Canada who have research co-funded by the fed’s and industry. Let’s see how much courage there is in our institution that is supposed to be about the public good.

    Let’s see how much courage is out there on campus first. Where speaking out is not an automatic job ending move.

    There’s courage, and then there is futile sacrifice, i.e. like a few scientists get laid off who were already on the chopping block is going to make a difference with HarperCon!
    And, the political theory on governance, what little I’ve read, isn’t all on Weaver’s side as to what gov’t scientists should do in this sort of situation.

    Of course there are many academics who have spoken out and done great work in challenging gov’t claims about industrial development impacts. But I’ve been following this since the early-1990’s, they are a minority. Most don’t ever openly rock the boat on behalf of the public good and are in fact in my experience of them quite embedded in the resource development paradigm of mitigation is always possible.

    In the 1990’s when I was engaged in parks and wilderness activism, very few academics stuck their neck out in Alberta on the issues to challenge gov’t/industry claims of the benign nature of industrial development. Only Schindler and few others. Most looked the other way.

    Or they’d tell us privately how great it was the NGO’s with activists like me were there to attempt to protect the public interest. Industry funding from logging and petro sectors was critical to their research. They wouldn’t have got fired, but it would have been tougher for them. That was enough to discipline them.

    So when Weaver can rally the fisheries scientists academia across Canada to speak out, then maybe I’d pay attention to him.

    Sam Gunsch

    • Thanks Sam for the insightful comments.

      I would tend to agree overall with your sentiment, in that there probably does need to be more of a call to academics to speak out. Even without tenure, there is a greater capacity for freedom to speak without fear of getting canned compared to government scientists- ideally, this is the whole idea behind academic freedom. I think that if anything will ever get turned around on this issue, it will be because enough noise comes from the academic community that the government can no longer ignore the problem.

      However, to be fair, I think it’s worth noting that there are academics who are sticking their necks out and made their objections known regarding the direction that the government has taken.

      A number of prominent scientists have received significant attention for speaking out in the media. David Schindler is among them, as you point out, but there’s quite a list of Canadian academic researchers prominently quoted in the media since the cuts announced earlier this year, including John Smol at Queen’s University, Jules Blais, University of Ottawa (and President of the Society of Canadian Limnologists), Tom Duck at Dalhousie, Karen Kidd at UNB, to name a few. Yves Prairie at UQAM has also been prominently featured in the Quebecois media. Peter Dillon at Trent University and Warwick Vincent at Laval were among those who signed an open letter to the Canadian government around the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area. Chris Metcalfe from Trent and Vance Trudeau from U Ottawa have also had their say. Britt Hall at the University of Regina has spoken on numerous occasions, and is now the head of the Coalition to Save ELA.

      Then there was the Death of Evidence march on Parliament hill this summer, where thousands marched on parliament hill to protest the government’s attack on evidence-based decision making, an event which received international attention. Scott Findlay was a co-organizer and prof. at U of Ottawa.

      Jeff Hutchings from Dalhousie (and president of the Canadian Sociey for Ecology and Evolution) has also been extensively quoted in the media on these topics, and spoke at the Death of Evidence rally.

      And there’s plenty that I’ve missed, too.

      So yes, there are academics who are indeed sticking their necks out for this cause, including Weaver. And I have alot of respect for my colleagues who are, and am grateful that they are doing so, since the opportunity for those of us in government to do so does not exist. Let’s hope that many more join the cause, and the noise gets loud enough that those in power finally decide to listen.

      • unmuzsci said: “Even without tenure, there is a greater capacity for freedom to speak without fear of getting canned compared to government scientists- ideally, this is the whole idea behind academic freedom. I think that if anything will ever get turned around on this issue, it will be because enough noise comes from the academic community that the government can no longer ignore the problem.”

        The “greater capacity for freedom to speak without fear”… is exactly the issue.

        Chomsky’s probably written the most about this. C. Lasch as well.
        Major failure of academia in this regard for decades now.
        And in like fashion, I’m quite cranky about this, as is no doubt obvious.

        If we citizenry are footing the bill for university, what the hell is it for if not to speak out for the public good against private interest, and against, private control of government, where private interests are driving public policy for their profits and society’s ruin? I already fund large commercial corporations via my purchases of their products. I don’t need to fund another institution via my taxes, called a university, if it’s workers, i.e. academics, are simply going to roll over for the most part in the face of the corporate leasing of the ivory tower.

        You are much more familiar with the academics speaking out. but…My sense is that those you cite amount to a tiny minority. Way too much careerism among academia, IMHO. But maybe that’s just reflective of the current materialist, and winner take all ethos.

        We citizens have to work at pragmatic occupations to pay the bills of our own life, and the bills of the collective life of society, and deliver basic goods and services. Academics have the privilege and honor of serving society, and if they do so, citizens will happily foot the bill. The citizenry needs more help than it’s getting from academia, and academia owes it to us. At least that’s my conception of the deal we’ve got going.

        And the ease with which government is able to cut university budgets with little public objection seems to me to be reflective of the failure of academics to make themselves useful to the public.

        I’m not so charitable as you, I’m afraid.

        And I know personally the cost that the few academics have paid for speaking out, and thus am a bit bitter about the gutlessness of the rest of them for not even standing in solidarity with the ethical few willing to stick their necks out.

        Sam Gunsch

  3. So, with regard to leveraging: how about this… What would be involved in creating a stripped down version of a Huffington Post type of social media site/platform for those undomesticated denizens/malcontents of the Ivory Tower?

    It occurs to me that your extensive knowledge of those in academia who have gone public, might be a capacity that could enable the creation of a portal that curated/aggregated/provided profile for the critique of these academics who’ve already stuck their neck out, and might foster more academic necks to stick out.

    So, I’m suggesting there is merit to exploring collective social media effort/modes: How does one go about generating a social media site that promotes (and celebrates) ongoing contributions from academia to the public sphere re generating push-back to the the harpercon corporatism? opposed to citizen-based democracy in service of the common good… just to be clear about the cult that has my allegiance.

    corporatism: See John Ralston Saul’s treatment in Unconscious Civilization, especially the preface of the 2005 re-issue.

    • Hi Sam,

      Great idea- hopefully someone sees your suggestion and takes it on- it would be great to see all that advocacy centralized in one place. I think you’re right, in that it would give people one place to point to and say “look, these folks are making their views heard- are you?” I’d be happy to contribute where I found what I did in putting the post together.

      Frankly, a great deal of what I got for the response to your initial post is from the SaveELA website, which, up to mid-January was tracking stories that mentioned ELA (I think they may have stopped since then for some reason). The link to news stories are here. The Resources page there has all sorts of other related goodies. Another good resource was on the advocacy page kept by Shelley Arnott, prof at Queen’s University. I got some of the contaminants-related links there.

      Someone who knows something about web-based programming would know how to automate the process of pulling all those activities by Canadian researchers together into one place fairly easily, I think- I welcome the effort.

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