Much has been made over the past while about how we government scientists are kept under wraps from talking to regular folks via the media. The most notable (recent) cases are Kristi Miller, a government scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, there are more frequent (and more subtle) forms of suppression that occur on a regular basis, that in many cases prevent the science from being done in the first place. I thought it would be illustrative to outline some of them here. I’ve tried to think about where in each step of the scientific process, from an idea, to the execution of a project and ultimately, to the communication of that work at conferences, scientific journals and the media that our work suffers as a result of the bureaucratic oversight we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
As I started writing this post, it became clear this will require at least a couple of entries to get through all the issues. So we’ll start with this one on the early stages of doing government science- like everything, it all starts with money.
1. Funding, funding, funding…
Any research scientist will tell you that the rubber hits the road with a line on funding- it’s very difficult to conduct science without some kind of money coming in to support the research- graduate students need paychecks, there’s lab equipment, disposables, field work (which can be brutally expensive depending on where you go- it’s not cheap to get to Ellesmere Island)- basically everything that costs money besides perhaps the salary of the scientist doing the work.
Clearly this is not a unique hurdle for government scientists. However, there are aspects about how we get our funding that are. There is perhaps an illusion that government scientists have a “budget” with which to conduct the research the government wants us to do. Not so. The only funding I can count on every year is $1500. To be clear, one thousand, five hundred dollars. That will pay a summer student for a month, and maybe some pens and paper for the office. Heaven help me if we need to repair field or lab equipment, or buy a new rainsuit. Clearly, this annual allowance not going to answer the major research questions the department needs answering, or the work that I as a scientist am interested in conducting.
So, we are asked to apply for internal competitive funds. Often, this funding is doled out in 1-year increments, making any long-term planning extremely difficult to do. Occasionally there’s multi-year funding pots available, but they are few and far between, and in the interest of regional fairness, any internal source of money that sounds reasonable at first glance often get diluted down between multiple regions, so you might get a fraction of what you ask for. But, some funding is better than no funding.
Okay, so I’ve got my $1500, maybe some internal funding. Oh wait- my manager just took 10% of those internal funds as overhead (that’s right, we are forced to use INTERNAL research dollars for administrative costs; apparently we have a very expensive photocopier, because I buy all my own pens and paper).
No matter, let’s try and use the money I do have as leverage to get some real work done, and look to outside funding sources. This can come from a number of places; NSERC discovery grants (but only if you’re an adjunct professor at a Canadian University, which I found out from personal experience is not all that simple or straightforward- more on that in another post); multi-year strategic grants through NSERC (if you can find a university faculty member to lead it; adjunct prof’s and government scientists can’t be the principal investigator on strategic grants); there’s provincial governments, funding through other federal departments, international organizations, etc. In short, many of the same places academic scientists can turn for funding. Should be no problem for an ambitious scientist, right?
Yes, but- this begs the question- shouldn’t government science departments be supporting the work that it’s scientists do? If you want your scientists doing work that fits your “departmental mandate”, shouldn’t you give them the money to support research in those directions? Apparently not- they expect you to find the money to do research that fits their priorities.
Let’s put that issue aside for the moment- no government has unlimited funds, so maybe seeking external funding for government-mandated work is justifiable. External funding often comes directed towards specific problems or issues; it just means we need to find the money pots that are aligned with our departmental “mandates”, or aligned closely enough. Until very recently, that call was up to us (the scientists). Unfortunately, new rules about what we’re even allowed to apply for in the first place may make this game even more difficult.
To get money into the department to do our work, we sign (and enter) “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs) and “collaborative agreements” (CAs)- contracts that say what the money is for, how much we get, and for how long. The new and somewhat disturbing rules around these contracts say that we need to seek departmental approval BEFORE we even submit a proposal. That’s right- not once we find out we have actual money to support the work, but before we even apply for it. AND we need to seek approval 3-months prior to even submitting the proposal. If the work that you are even planning on applying for (or working with a collaborator on) is deemed for whatever reason not in the interests of the approving manager, it’s dead in the water. You can’t even take the step of asking for the money to do the work you want to do, or leave it up to peer-review if the proposed work is of scientific merit or provides information on a key topic of interest- if the manager doesn’t like it, then it’s back to trying to piece together your research program with your $1500.
A potentially bigger issue with the rule changes around external funding is the new rule that “Expenditures cannot be incurred before the funds are received in the region“. Translation- you can’t spend the money before you have it. This might seem reasonable, until you find out how long the signing of CAs and MOUs normally take. A common timeline looks something like this: You submit your MOU in April for the work you want to do in July, and by the time it goes from you up the chain to whomever needs to sign it (on both ends), you see the money sometime in November. This latest rule might very simply put an end to government-led arctic research as we know it. Arctic field research is expensive, and often only takes place over a very brief window in the summer when weather allows. The money to fund that work is almost never in place when it’s time to head into the field. If you can’t do the work till the money is in hand, then it won’t get done; to say that field work in the arctic would be difficult to carry out in November would be an understatement.
“But why can’t you just use the money from this year for next year’s field campaign?” you might ask. The reason is because it’s the government. Our fiscal year end is March 31st, which means whatever money for the year isn’t spent by then either needs to be returned to external funders or gets absorbed back into general revenue.
With the system that’s been in place before these rules, we’ve been able to manage to do some decent work as government scientists, thanks primarily to the existence of external funding. But with these new changes, it may be a long time coming before you hear of any real government science taking place.