And here I thought it was just me…

I’m pleased to say that I’ve received my first comment from another public servant. The names have been changed for anonymity. Thank you “Larry” for your contribution.

Comment: Hi there. Great work. Not all scientists can write in a style accessible to the general public. Jeff Hutchings has put out some good editorials on this topic, one recently in the Toronto Star. This muzzling of scientists business is bad news. It takes forever to get research published as it is…you have to compete for funding, apply for permits, do the study (often with several field seasons), analyze data, write it up, submit to a journal, wait for the review, do the revisions, resubmit, and so on. And now add another very uncertain timeline of an internal government “review”? Without needing to exaggerate, this added step will add many more months if not years – with the risk that approval may be denied at the end. Who in their right mind will want to collaborate with a DFO researcher now? I suppose that’s the point…

Another form of government muzzling that is taking place is the mass demotions of regulatory staff across the country. Basically making it so very few people will be at a level of authority to speak at public forums or make regulatory decisions, particularly on big development proposals like mines or pipelines. 

Anyway, I was sent your blog from a buddy in academia. Everyone involved with science is disturbed by the state of things – as they should be.

Keep on fighting the good fight.

Thanks. Larry

Canadian Government votes against… Science

Our fearless leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, voting "No" to science in this country.

Our fearless leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, voting “No” to science in this country.

It’s one of those things that you wish you hadn’t seen- like a terrible car crash that you drive past.

Today, our members of parliament debated a motion put forward by NDP Science and Technology critic, Kennedy Stewart. The motion reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of the House,

a) public science, basic research, and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making;

b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public;

c) the government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program.

The governing conservative party cheered as they defeated the motion, 157 against to 137 for. That’s right- a majority of our parliamentarians, every single one of them conservative, voted against this motion. Want to see how your MP voted? You can find out here. Maybe they would like to explain to you why they voted the way they did.

So let’s review exactly what it is that our government does not support.

A. They do NOT support scientific evidence to inform government policy. Perhaps not surprising, seeing as how the recent changes to environmental legislation in this country were clearly made without seeking out scientific advice.

B. They do NOT support federal government scientists (people like me) discussing our scientific research with the public or our colleagues. We’re already forced to go through enourmous rigamarole (I believe that’s the technical term) to talk to the media, or present our work at a scientific conference. Clearly, that wasn’t enough, so they made publishing our scientific work more difficult: we now need to seek approval from a Division Manager to first submit the paper, as well as to sign off on copyright release.

C. This is a bit of a two-parter. First, they do NOT believe in maintaining support for basic scientific capacity across Canada. All government departments have seen a reduction in their science capacity with the cutbacks that have rolled out over the past two years, though the government still hasn’t admitted it publicly. Gary Goodyear claims that investments in science and technology have increased over their time in power, but there seems to be some debate about those numbers. According to Kennedy Stewart, Stats Canada numbers that suggest that investment in Science and Technology has actually fallen by about 1 Billion dollars annually since the 2010-2011 fiscal year (I’d love to post the numbers if Kennedy reads this and can point me to them- I can be reached on my comment page).

The second part, is that the government does NOT support extending funding for the Experimental Lakes Area until a new operator has been found. Again, not surprising, given that they started tearing cabins apart last week and informed non-government scientists this week that they would not be allowed on-site to conduct their research– federally funded research.

This government says it invests in science, but makes it crystal clear in its actions that it’s not the least bit concerned with it. As they say, actions speak louder than words.

UPDATE (21 March 2013): In response to Burinsmith and Ivankaram that my title is over the top… it’s based on the picture. The topic of the vote, according to CPAC which broadcast it yesterday, was “Science”. The following tweet inspired the post:tim_chu

I was always told, even in the science world, that you want a catchy title. Looks like I’m getting alot of traffic on this post, from folks with a variety of viewpoints. Hopefully my post can contribute to constructive discussions around the issue outside of my choice of title.

Ignore the science, poison the well


Jake Rice, DFO scientist, author of “Advocacy science and fisheries decision-making”, published 6 months before Bill C-38 was tabled. Would he be “approved” to publish this if it were submitted today?

Not too long ago, Steve Cooke, a fisheries ecologist and Associate Professor at Carleton University, posted an interesting paper by Jake Rice on his twitter account. Jake is also a government scientist, and recently published a paper in the ICES Journal of Marine Science entitled “Advocacy science and fisheries decision-making”. It’s worth a read if you have the time (note: watch for the operatic references on page 3).

In his paper, Jake argues strongly for keeping science objective, and not letting it be perverted by other motives. With some real-world examples, he argues that science should be presented as a means for policy makers to make decisions, vs. having science cherry-picked or analyzed in a certain manner to support a specific policy outcome.

It’s a perspective I agree with, which I’ll try to articulate within the context of the paper, e.g., in fisheries science. More than the science about the ecosystem being fished goes into policy; there are social issues, economies, politics, etc, which are the purview of special interests. However, the social issues and economies are often intimately tied to the sustainability of the ecosystem (and therefore the fishery). Further, Jake argues that in the milieu of all these special interests, the science advice has a special role in the shaping of policy, as it’s objective, and not driven by the interests of one group or another. I’ll quote a bit of the paper here to try and illustrate the point:

“With hundreds of partisan documents being submitted on major decisions, policy-makers have to make choices that please some interests more than others. Which interests are chosen to please and which to upset is a test of political instinct, with short-term political risks knowingly taken when a decision is made. If the decision-maker chooses options that are inconsistent with the science advice, however, it is the wisdom and judgement of the decision-maker that is questioned. Challenges come from all quarters and persist long after the decision, as demands for accountability continue 20 years after the key decisions on Canadian Atlantic groundfish stocks. This standard of accountability for not heeding science advice means that from hundreds of documents that may be on a decision-makers desk, the science advice is always up front, and responsible decision-makers always read that advice carefully.”

This paper was published in the fall of 2011, almost exactly 6 months before we knew what the sweeping changes contained in bill C-38 would contain.

Among those changes relevant to the current post were the changes to environmental legislation: the Navigable Waters Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Canada National Parks Act, the Canada National Marine Conservation Areas Act, the First Nations Land Management Act, the Parks Canada Agency Act, and a whole new Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. And let’s not forget the Fisheries Act.

What’s noteworthy from the perspective of Jake’s paper is the role that science advice played in these policy changes, particularly those acts relying significantly on science previously. The answer: they didn’t. The sacred role of science advice in helping shape policy seems to have been totally ignored, and instead shaped entirely by those ‘partisan documents’ from special interests. Based on Jake’s assessment in the above quoted paragraph, this is not responsible decision making.

And one interest in particular seemed to play a major role in shaping these changes to environmental legislation, since many of the acts which were amended match those suggested for revision in a joint letter sent to the government from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (now the Canadian Fuels Association) and the Canadian Gas Association.

Apparently, the fear of having been seen as ignoring science advice in shaping policy was not considered, nor the potential ecological (and therefore economic) consequences of these decisions. Perhaps people 2, 3, 5, 10 years from now will be questioning the wisdom of this particular batch of decision-makers, as many are now currently and openly doing.

Instead, they’ve had scientists participating in precisely the exercise that Jake cautions against in his paper- using science to justify a particular policy decision. Advisory meetings bringing DFO scientists together from across the country have been held to try and make some meaningful scientific basis for it (mentioned here by the Atlantic Salmon federation, since the meetings and discussions of those meetings are not public). This is totally backwards from what should be happening- provide the science to shape the policy, not find the science to support the policy.

So, what are we as scientists (both government and academic) to do moving forward when trying to do applied science that might inform government policy? Jake has some advice on this too, which I think is more relevant today than ever.

Jake’s first piece of advice is to bring the science up to the level at which the decision is made. For example, rather than investigating “climate effects on fisheries from very important lake Y”, and leaving it at the level of how the fishery changes, take another paragraph in the discussion to explain the economic and social impacts of those changes- frame it in numbers of jobs, dollars and cents; what proportion of a particular communities economy is supported by the fishery, etc. While typically outside of the types of things we spend our time thinking about, it’s entirely relevant and in many cases, may not be so difficult to do. Arguably, this would also assist with connecting our work as scientists more broadly to societal issues, something we are often accused of falling short of.

Jake’s second piece of advice is suggesting that science advice be presented using methods that evaluate the probabilities of various potential policies as well as the potential effects of being wrong. Jake uses the example of signal detection theory; this and other Bayesian-type approaches may hold promise for providing some of the “risk” information that the science advice doesn’t typically contain in a quantifiable manner, or the manner that decision makers might be looking for.

It’s true that even this advice can continue to be ignored- but it needs to be out there for everyone to see and consider, so that it can be seen- objectively- when the decisions made by policy makers irresponsibly choose to ignore science.

Evidence for Democracy

My apologies for being quiet for a bit here- I’ve been trying to do, well, science.

Anyway, during my brief hiatus, I’m pleased to see that the folks who brought you the Death of Evidence rally in Ottawa this past summer have begun another group: Evidence for Democracy. Heck, they even have a facebook and twitter account.

Their initial campaign, “science uncensored” was launched about two weeks ago. What’s unique about this organization is that it’s citizen-based and is asking for citizens to weigh in on the topic of science censorship by the government. It’s clear that this government doesn’t seem to care what the journalists or scientists think, so maybe they’ll care what the voting public thinks.

Please have a look at the site and considering adding your name to the list of supporters. Heck, you even get to send the prime minister a message in support of the cause.


Muzzled science on a Sunday

I thought this was too good to pass up. A great spot on the muzzling of government scientists today on the Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, which you can listen to here. Speaking with Michael is Gordon McBean (pron. “McBain”), a climate researcher at the University of Western Ontario, president-elect for the International Council of Science, and former Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Canada, 1994-2000.

I especially like the reference in the intro to Kelly Leitch’s defense of the government position, which she stumbled all over on Power and Politics last week, just saying the same speaking points over, and over, and over (as Rick Mercer recently pointed out, it’s not just us scientists that are muzzled). Kelly’s inadequate response can be found here. She says that publication is the way to go (despite the fact that even that’s now in jeopardy given new rules that make my Division Manager, not me, the person responsible for reviewing and signing off on copyright transfer on publications).

McBean makes the point crystal clear: publication isn’t enough. To really be able to communicate science to the public, it requires speaking, in plain language, the research that is being done. It’s this that so rarely happens now.

The topic eventually swings around to the potential “politicization of science” as a consequence of scientists speaking about their research. I think it’s important to point out that this swings both ways- e.g., by limiting communication and directing topics of investigation, the government is helping contribute to policy-driven science, not scientifically-based policy decisions. There’s a big difference, which I’m working on hashing out for a future post.