50 shades of muzzle, part 2- hiring


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.


3 thoughts on “50 shades of muzzle, part 2- hiring

  1. Thank you so much for creating this blog. This is very exciting, someone willing to tell the truth and help us understand this area of the public service. Also an easy read for the lay-person, interesting, good flow. Even anonymous posting is risky, so this is much appreciated.

  2. unmuxsci said: “Nothing stops science dead in it’s tracks like eliminating the whole program”

    This results of course from the constant attack by private interests on government as the means to provide for the general welfare.

    And while I don’t mean to discount the hiring process delay problems you outline, I suspect that if you could count on stable funding of government research programs, all the contract/temp staff stuff would be diminished greatly and civil servants could get something done.

    So… I think it’s all going to turn on the political work of the citizenry. Political work of all sorts, that is necessary to rejuvenate the idea of government, and the role of government staff/departments in serving the citizenry/the common good.

    Unless sufficient numbers of us citizens successfully rally support for the notion of government as our mechanism that serves us, and raise sufficient objection to the market as the ‘decision-maker’, all the rest is detail.

    Sam Gunsch

    • Hi Sam,

      Thanks for your replies, and I agree wholeheartedly that if there was year-on-year certainty in budgets, it alleviates many of the problems around staffing- if you know what your budget is, you can plan accordingly. More often than not, you find out you’ve gotten some money to do some work long after you have the chance to hire sumer students. Or, trying to find temporary help in short order for brief periods of funding is also challenging for the same reasons.

      Hopefully more people are out there that share your sentiment, and can see the value in supporting government science that truly serves the people that are supporting it- by providing the science to inform the policy that’s required; not letting the policy drive the science (e.g., recent changes to the Fisheries Act, Environmental Assessment Act). As those sentiments turn to the “political work”, as you call it, maybe we’ll start to see some common sense come back to the management of government-based science.

      Jake Rice, a respected and senior scientist at DFO, published a paper in 2011 in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, cautioning against exactly what seems to be happening in this department at this moment. Jake writes:

      “when… experts place their desired policy outcomes ahead of the basic principles of sound, objective science, an important boundary is crossed. Not only are the benefits [of science informing policy] reduced, but public dialogue actually suffers because the factual basis of the dialogue is distorted.”

      I can’t help but wonder if Jake’s division manager would have approved the copyright release on this paper today.

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