Office of Scientific Freedom

I received a comment from a reader today. Among their words of support was a link to this political cartoon:

d45b612748e2b208b96522abc764

Thanks to Osmia for the link, and to Greg Perry for the cartoon.

Rick Mercer has also recently helped bring some of these issues more into the mainstream with his rant this week:

Thanks Rick. Rick also makes the point that it’s not just scientists receiving this treatment, but basically everyone under the Prime Minister’s Office. However, I see a bigger problem with limiting the ability of scientists to speak and report on their objective findings vs. limiting access to government ministers. The science produced by government scientists is paid for (in part) by the Canadian taxpayer, and they should be able to access the products of that work, in a manner that’s accessible. In a recent interview with As It Happens, Assistant Deputy Minister Kevin Stringer indicated that allowing government scientists to publish their scientific papers is the most appropriate way to access that science (but see my post here on how even publication of scientific findings may be in jeopardy). Pointing the public to scientific papers isn’t the answer; providing scientists the opportunity to explain their research via the media is a far more effective mechanism for getting the major points across. Stringer was quick to point out that DFO has provided all kinds of interviews in the past. So why hasn’t Kristi Miller ever been able to speak to the media about her paper published in Science on salmon viruses?

Until things change, it will be taxpayer money in, but nothing back to taxpayers to show them they are getting their money’s worth. Is the future of government science being sabotaged from above? The contaminants program that was axed by DFO has been replaced by an advisory group that will fund external researchers to do the work DFO scientists used to do. Maybe this is where things are headed generally.

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50 shades of muzzle part 3- conference approval DENIED

One of the main venues that scientists have for reporting their findings to the scientific community is through scientific conferences. As a graduate student, I attended 2-4 scientific conferences a year. This provided an impetus to get some stuff done so I would have something to present, as well as provide many, many MANY opportunities (often unforeseen) in order to gain constructive feedback on the work I had presented, and an opportunity to meet collaborators for additional work.

Then, I became a government scientist. I looked with anticipation to a meeting only 3 months away, which I very much looked forward to attending. When I mentioned it to my colleagues, they laughed. “You want to go to a conference that’s only 3 months away? You should have put that in a year ago!!!” Understandably, I was confused, as I’d only just joined the public service.

However, this is the way it works. In September 2013, we science staff were asked to provide all meetings we anticipated attending for all of 2014. A FULL YEAR OR MORE IN ADVANCE. This seems strange, particularly to government scientists, since we are being asked to identify conferences we wish to attend when conference dates are typically only tentatively announced, AND, we are being asked to forecast expenditures (e.g., associated with conference travel and registration) into a future fiscal year when we don’t even know if we’ll have the money available to attend, since the government is so keen on keeping us funded on a year-to-year basis.

Okay, planning ahead is a good thing, right? You think this would mean that we’d find out we’re eligible to attend well in advance, so we can get the early registration fee, saving the taxpayer $100 to $200 dollars, and get our accommodation booked early, ensuring additional savings. Right? WRONG. Typically, we’re lucky if we find out 1-2 weeks before the conference if we’re approved to go. That means we pay premiums on airfare, because we have to book through a centralized system and therefore pay top-dollar for booking flights 1-2 weeks away, we scramble to find accommodation, and we sigh in relief that the registration we’ve already paid will be reimbursed because otherwise our abstract would have been denied.

Worse yet, this has NOTHING to do with whether you have the money to attend or not. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had external funding to send me to a conference all lined up, and been denied (with no explanation), and similarly, been approved to attend a conference for which I have no funding to attend (because I had to ask for it 1.5 years in advance, and could not secure funds for the meeting).

So, our bosses ask for 1 to 1.5 years advance notice for meetings, and we’re told 1-2 weeks in advance of the conference if we can attend or not, REGARDLESS of whether we have funding to go or not. We cost the taxpayer a premium in travel costs because of this ENTIRELY bureaucratic delay. AND, it’s yet another example of how our Canadian government keeps the science that we do suppressed from both the scientific community and the general public. Don’t like the message in that abstract that was sent for approval? DENY PERMISSION TO ATTEND. Or, grant them permission, knowing full well they have no funding to attend, because you DENIED PERMISSION for applying to certain external grants.

Even worse, you get granted permission to attend a conference and report your findings, only to find you have a babysitter in tow. Plenty of stories are in the media about Environment Canada scientists, among others, being “advised” on how to conduct themselves at conferences, and even having media advisers in tow.

What you might not have heard about was a recent Canadian conference, the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research, held January 3-5 in Windsor, Ontario, which had a special session on the Experimental Lakes Area. The meeting actually had quite a bit of media coverage here and here, but what wasn’t mentioned was that the Regional Director of DFO Science, Dr. Michelle Wheatley, was directed to attend the conference and sit in on the special session on the Experimental Lakes Area where a number of government scientists were reporting recent results on climate change and mercury research. You might not know that Dr. Wheatley spoke to each of the presenters that were government employees prior to presenting and told them to mind the questions that they answered- that they could address issues around the science they presented, but specifically not to comment on the elimination of the program, or answer questions regarding the closure of ELA by the Government of Canada. You can imagine how these staff must have felt to have their boss in the audience monitoring their every word. Apparently, if you’re a government employee, you need a babysitter who is capable of terminating your employment in the room if you are presenting the science you have conducted.

 

 

Stopping the science before it starts

Dave Burden, Director General of Central and Arctic Region, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explaining the new policy in the region for seeking external research funds.

Dave Burden, Director General of Central and Arctic Region, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explaining the new policy in the region for seeking external research funds.

I’ve received some questions on my contact me page regarding my earlier post on recent departmental changes in Central and Arctic region that require us to ask permission to even apply for external funding at least 3 months before the proposals are even due. Remember, most government scientists rely almost exclusively on external funding to do their work as there’s little to no internal support for research.

The changes are outlined in an e-mail to staff sent out early February, and also appear on a page on the Central and Arctic DFO intranet site “Polaris”. Because it’s an intranet site, I can’t provide a link. So, here are some images of what the outlined changes are. The highlighting and emphasis was put there by the person who wrote it, not me.

New DFO policy on requesting permission to apply for funding

New DFO policy on requesting permission to apply for funding, page 1

new form outlining permission to seek funding, page 2

new policy outlining permission to seek funding, page 2

And here’s the actual form we’re supposed to fill out- before we even apply for the funding, to seek permission to do so.

RDS C&A pre-approval form

RDS C&A pre-approval form

Is the government breaking the law?

breakingthelaw

Recent articles by Margaret Munro and from the CBC have raised the possibility that restricting the communications of federal scientists could actually be illegal. I, for one, am very interested to see how that one plays out.

However, it raises an interesting issue- by shutting down federal programs like the Experimental Lakes Area, the government is actually failing to meet their contractual obligations for memorandums of understanding with a number of partners- with some pretty significant financial implications (and we all know how much Fisheries and Oceans likes their agreements with external researchers these days). Could they be sued for not meeting those obligations?

Case in point #1: the Lake Ecosystem NanoSilver experiment, or LENS, led by Chris Metcalfe and other researchers at Trent University. This is an NSERC-funded strategic grant worth over 3/4 of a million dollars, plus a bunch more in leveraged funding from (perhaps ironically) Environment Canada. As a partner on the grant, DFO’s main obligation was the staff and facility at the Experimental Lakes Area. So- what do you contribute as a research partner when you close the facility that you were providing? Isn’t that a breach of contract?

Case #2: the recently-announced 4.4 Million dollar NSERC-funded Network grant, the Canadian Network for Aquatic Ecosystem Services, which was officially announced last week. Again, DFO is featured prominently as a partner on this very significant grant, and, like the LENS project, the main contribution was the involvement of the Experimental Lakes Area. What you don’t know is that DFO has been scrambling to figure out just how they will be able to remain as partners on this initiative, given that they just shut down the place where a major component of one of the research themes was meant to take place.

Don’t forget that the US government and Smithsonian institution are still involved in ongoing monitoring from a mercury addition experiment that is in recovery phase; METAALICUS. Given that the work from this experiment is contributing to US and UN policies on mercury emissions, they might presumably have a vested interest in seeing that work follow through.

Given that DFO enters legally-binding agreements in these types of projects, it stands to reason that if they are unable to provide their commitments, they should be held legally responsible. Realistically, it takes some pretty deep pockets to sue the government, but I really wonder if this is one of the scenarios that the department “risk managed” when they decided to close this facility.

Why does government science matter?

Given that most of what I’ve put up here so far has been criticism of the way things are done currently with respect to Government-based science in Canada, I figured it was time to do a post to make clear that I think Government-based science IS important, and CAN and SHOULD be used to meaningfully inform government policy. I think this is what we’d all like the situation to be like. It’s what I felt I was getting into when I took this job instead of pursuing a career in academics. My concern after being here for as long as I have is that the system has drifted far from the ideal situation. My sincere hope is that what I put on this site might ultimately be used to FIX the system and bring things back from the brink to a point at which we can have faith in the system once more. Not that I really think anyone in government is looking to this site for advice, but rather, if the issues raised here are raised elsewhere- by staff in division meetings, at town-halls with the Regional Directors and ADMs; but also publicly in the media, and more broadly in the public conscience- then people might start to wonder if there might be a better way of doing things than the current mode of operations. I firmly believe that the way things are and the way they are going, the current model is unsustainable and (whether intentionally or not) set up to self-destruct.

Government Science CAN and SHOULD inform policy

One of the biggest strengths of government-based science, in my mind anyway, is that it has the capacity to answer very pressing questions quickly and effectively. One of the best environmental examples I can think of in this regard is the work that brought the Experimental Lakes Area into existence, and outlined eloquently by Dr. David Schindler at the University of Alberta in his Killam lecture in 2008. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Lake Erie was a eutrophic mess back in the 60’s, full of stinking algae and dead fish forever washing up on shores and the lake being described as “dead” in the media, the Canadian government tasked Jack Vallantyne with solving the problem. His answer was to establish the Experimental Lakes Area and poach David Schindler from Trent University to lead the program. The way David describes the connection between the work done at ELA and the way that work was communicated as advice up through the International Joint Commission (the intergovernmental body charged with managing the Great Lakes), ultimately leading to reductions in phosphate release into the lakes is, well, inspiring.

What’s interesting about the rest of David’s speech from that point on (read it at the link above- it’s worth it) is that it describes where things went wrong, which in short order gets us where we are today, with many of the same problems persisting.

But somehow, despite all that, policy-shaping work continues to be done by government scientists, pulled together because of the ingenuity and determination of individuals to identify problems, seek out external funding and do the critical science to inform policy makers. It’s even more disheartening to then have the department and the minister take credit for the work as being “forward-thinking”, when in reality you had to fight tooth and nail to get anything done in the first place.

Why can’t academics do the work? Why have government science programs at all?

Short answer: time and money. Government science programs can have more dedicated staff to do the work, frequently more resources for capitol investment (boats, vessels, facilities, etc), and ultimately, pretty deep pockets if the project in question is recognized as a legitimate priority. Much more so than would be allocated to the typical academic grant in Canada. Traditionally in government science, one could maintain long-term project funding for much longer than under typical academic funding cycles (5 years at best, fewer more common). This permits a focus on directed questions over that long term vs. having to change direction in research questions every 5 years with whatever issue has become cosmopolitan in funding circles.

But again, this seems to be exactly the direction things are going. Within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the nation-wide contaminants program led by leading research scientists in the field that was axed has been replaced by a 5-person “advisory group”. A major part of the responsibilities of this group will be to allocate funding to academic researchers to evaluate topics around contaminants of concern. One has to wonder how many orders of magnitude less the scope of the work funded through the advisory program will be compared to the program that was in place before the cuts.

Monitoring

It is very difficult for academics to conduct large-scale environmental monitoring programs over the long-term (but see sidebar below). In academics, the necessary infrastructure (and maintenance of that infrastructure over decades) is lacking, staff (e.g., postdocs and graduate stuents) have frequent turnover rates and a diversity of interests themselves, funding sources/priorities that are alligned to monitoring are rare if not nonexistent in Canada, and efforts are further hindered by the movement of researchers from one institution to another. Many monitoring programs which have been government-based in the past now find themselves with highly valuable datasets with which to investigate questions regarding climate change and effects on organisms, ecosystems, contaminant transport. There is a special brand of irony that many of the same programs that collected these valuable data and have the expertise to now answer these important questions are the very ones now being cut by federal departments, despite stated departmental needs for science advice on long-term processes like climate change.

Worse yet, this particular government seems to be arguing that  proponents for development (translation: developers, e.g., mining companies, etc.) should actually be the ones leading for and paying for monitoring programs, not the government. That’s crazy. Monitoring programs need to be well-thought out, and have consistency through time. If you look at what proponents have over the long-term, that’s not what you find. More typically, it’s whatever the lowest-bidding consultant group tells you what you need to know, and spews back at you every 2-3 years and which is nothing like the methods used by the last group they were using, and the datasets aren’t comparable. Though not out yet, let’s hope that the oilsands monitoring program that is soon to come out actually takes into account the scientific advice in design that they’ve been given, and that they don’t just pull the plug on it if the results begin to tell them something the funder (industry) doesn’t want to hear. And, let’s not forget that the only reason this monitoring program was overhauled was because Schindler’s group exposed the previous program as sadly insufficient.

So yes, there is value to government science, and there are reasons we should be doing it. Government science is focused on the priorities of the day. Intrinsically, this is not a bad thing. But if the priorities of the day are actually not doing science, then there’s a problem. With this particular group in charge, the priority seems to be with facilitating development, and worry about the consequences later, rather than have any unbiased assessment of our understanding of ecosystems meaningfully inform responsible development.

Sidebar: You can have long-term monitoring in Canadian academics, but more frequently, it’s tracking a particular population as opposed to a broader ecosystem approach like those adopted by past government programs evaluating contaminants and whole-ecosystem changes. Some examples that come to mind are the folks that have been working on small mammals for their whole careers: Stan Boutin, Jack Millar come to mind (Though I don’t know what the federal cuts to Kulane will mean to Stan’s group or the research they do up there). Retirement can pose a problem if someone isn’t there who finds your study system interesting; again, there are exceptions. Case in point, Jan Murie studied Columbian ground squirrels in Alberta for a large part of his career. Though he has retired, Jeff Lane appears to have taken over the work on these populations in the Kananaskis hills of Alberta (in large part apparently by recruiting volunteer field assistants– trust me- if you’ve ever spent any time in the sheep river valley, it would be a pretty amazing volunteer opportunity as the surroundings make it worth the visit), and with some interesting results, based on their recent paper in Nature.

50 shades of muzzle, part 2- hiring

fish-handshake

Okay, maybe not the most interesting title, I admit, but it gets better, I promise (or at least I hope you think so). It may at first glance seem difficult to make the link between hiring and suppressing science, but having seen the process work, I can’t see how it doesn’t.

Let’s assume we have a great idea, and we’ve convinced our Division Manager that we should be approved to apply for some external funding- assuming we’re successful, we can go do some science. Wait- right- gotta pay my Division’s 10% overhead (apparently the Canadian Government doesn’t pay their administrators enough). Okay, now let’s do some science. Step 1: hire some folks to help do the work. In the government, you’d better have anywhere from 2 months to 2 years to get this done before you start, or you may not get anything done at all.

Having seen it done in first-hand in academics and in government, the hiring process can provide some major barriers to getting good work done. Let me break this down into two different levels of hiring: permanent positions (looooong process) and temporary (not as long, but far too long often to provide any real help).

First the long-term. One of the benefits of government-funded science programs is that they have dedicated people to do the work at hand. Not just a PI and some eager, overworked grad students and an army of undergrads, but full-time staff who’s job it is to track narwhal, or drive across the country electrofishing streams, or going out on frozen lakes taking sediment cores and analyzing them in the lab… biologists and technicians. These men and women are an invaluable resource to good government science- because they are good jobs, it gives you stability and consistency. In many cases, you could have for example, one taxonomist working on a long-term (e.g., 15 year) project from start to finish, which can really strengthen the interpretation of the data (no problems with going from one person to another and the problems that can cause). SIDEBAR: yes, a 15-year project. This is the sort of amazing thing you can do (or used to be able to do) in government science that is nearly impossible to do in academics; Academic work operates on 3-5 year funding cycles, students and postdocs coming and going on 2-5 year cycles, and lots of crossed fingers along the way.

One can argue that a rigorous system should be put in place to make sure that you get the right person for the job in these good, long-term positions, and rightly so. And these are the positions that can take a really, really long time to fill. From the moment of writing the job description and qualifications, to actually having someone doing the work, at least 1 year, often more than that. Is it different in industry? I can’t say for sure, but I imagine so. I seriously doubt that the hiring cycle takes that long for field biologists and technicians in the private sector (i.e., consulting firms). Presumably, they too need to have some degree of transparency in their process, but I think the main problem that in government, this has to go through so many different approvals at so many different levels. First, approval for the salary in the first place. Then, approval of the ad. Then, approval of the short-list. Then, approval of the selection. Then, some convoluted process with Human Resources that requires the drafting of a letter of offer, then, and only then, you have someone doing the work.

So, to fill the interim (e.g., the 1-2 years it will take you to hire someone), what do you do? Hire someone temporary, either on casual or on term. The problem is, these permanent positions come up for approval so rarely that people get stuck in these never-ending term positions (no job security, no pension). I have heard of people working as terms for 10+ years hoping to one day get the magical “permanent job” and it never happening. Why? There is so little succession. In the time I’ve been with the public service, for every 4 retirements you *might* get a hire.

Okay, back to reality- we’re supported now primarily by external funding, so even if we’re lucky enough to have a biologist or a technician, we’ll still need short-term help. Grad students, summer students, casual help.

Once again, we get mired in bureaucratic rules. “Casuals”, the easiest way to hire someone short-term, can only work 90 days in a given calendar year. So, if you need someone the whole year, this won’t work. How about a term? Possible, but now you’re running a major competition, and you’re back to waiting a year. CASE IN POINT: A Research Scientist goes on maternity leave, and is assured they will have someone hired to help advance their program over the year they are gone. They start the process well in advance of them leaving, knowing how long it takes, and hoping to have some overlap before leave for a smooth transition. Mat leave starts, job ad still undergoing approval. Job finally goes out 2 months after leave starts, closing date, another month down the road. Another month later, interviews are held, with questions from candidates like “this was meant to be a maternity-leave replacement, right? So realistically, how long will this 1-year position be for?” After candidates are ranked, offers are made 6 months into mat. leave. All turn it down. Shocking. End result- hire a casual for the remainder of the leave (now only 4 months left of the leave after that process), salvage as much as you can.

Okay, what about students? Say you hear from your friend at the nearby University that they have an uber-keen student in one of their classes, is doing work in their lab and they just know they’d be perfect for the project you got funded. Are they a co-op student? If yes, this is a pretty straightforward process, and can operate on similar timelines as in academics (e.g., 2 months between advertize, interview, and hire). If not, it’s next to impossible to get the person you want. Students who want to work for federal programs apply through a program called FSWEP. As an applicant, you can say what your interests are, and the kind of work you want to do, which puts you in a pool. However, if our student (let’s call her Jan) applies to work with you through FSWEP by putting in all the key words you want, you may never ever see them. Human resources does all the grouping, and when I as a scientist make a staffing request through FSWEP, I get a list of students from all across the country, and if Jan isn’t in there, too bad. Even worse if the list I get are nowhere near as qualified as Jan is; you might get lucky from this process, but it’s a crap-shoot. Plus, students have been given advice from all their profs to make contact, get to know someone, that will help you get the job. In academics, yes, but not in this crazy scheme.

There is some similarly convoluted process to bringing on and paying Grad students (as students), that takes some unfathomable lead-time to process, that I have yet to navigate- frequently, this is done by having collaborators at universities handle that end of things, though I’m told it can be done through the government side as well.

SO, in the end, what do you end up with? If you’re lucky, you’ve got a grad student or students working on the project. In this case, I think you get closest to your proposed research goals, and might actually meet them (thank you grad students, and yes, you do a shit-pile of work and we do appreciate it, even if we neglect to tell you and all we do to show our appreciation is give you more work). Without them, you likely have a string of casuals, which means you need to re-train staff every 6 months, and if you’re lucky, and some bright and eager co-op students who can work extended terms thanks to the design of their program.

Is this intentionally suppressing the process of scientific discovery? No. Does it get in the way of scientific discovery? I think so. I’ve witnessed plenty of projects suffer because of the timelines involved in hiring people; Instead of doing what you say you would do, you get about 1/4 of it done, no clear answers and 3/4 of the work to do still with no dedicated staff and the funding has run out. I also know that we have plenty of good scientists who have navigated this convoluted process successfully for decades. In many ways, academic researchers face similar challenges, but not nearly on the immense timelines that we face. And, when you ad up all the time on re-training, and re-training, and re-training, and going through these hiring processes, it’s time taken away from analyzing data, writing papers… you know, science.

One last (and obvious) component related to hiring (or, firing, as the case may be) in terms of stopping science dead in it’s tracks falls under the innocuous terminology of “program review” and “workforce adjustment”. Translation- “you’re fired”. Nothing stops science dead in it’s tracks like eliminating the whole program. Ask anyone who used to do Ozone research at Environment Canada, or those who used to work in the Contaminant monitoring program or the Experimental Lakes Area, both programs axed by DFO on May 17, 2012.