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.

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One thought on “Why does government science matter?

  1. I think your voice is critical. We need thousands more like you. Biologists, housewives, farmers, students.. Canadians standing up for Canada.. the environment, knowledge, values, community, culture etc. Right now we have a deplorable situation politically. And science is one of the victims. So is democracy.. I won’t rant on and on about the Harper Government.. though we need concerted communication efforts to understand and identify exactly what damage is being done.

    Certainly we need to recognize and support those scientists & biologists victimized or threatened by shallow political dogma, partisan scheming, lobbying or corporatist malfeasance.

    It really is going to take hyper active, accurate, effective media exposure.. blogs, photos, articles, presentations, interviews, books .. and the kitchen sink.. to bring awareness of political folly and ecological madness to the average citizen and voter..

    Personally, I believe the Experimental Lakes should become a rallying point. I also think Fort Chip is another.. Grassy Narrows, the Salish Sea and the Broughton archipelago, and Kitimaat, the Grand Banks, the arctic, the boreal … the grasslands & meadows.. the dark forests

    I’m based in Ontario.. but follow every province & territory .. of the tribe called Canada. I’m a writer, artist, photographer .. I’m hoping.. and believing that exemplars like you will help Canada and Canadians to awaken.. and steer straight… in extremely challenging times..

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