Should we give Harper what he wants?

Death of Evidence_small_10

A shift in the focus at NRC to strictly industry-based investigation. Misrepresentation of facts as to how scientific research is conducted by Government Ministers, requiring correction for the public record. Release of a “National Household Survey” with data so questionable and reporting so poor that Stats Canada won’t even release some of the results they did get (and yet somehow, we have a handle on how many Jedis reside in Canada). Laying off even more scientists and researchers at Agriculture Canada. Putting out notice that science in the arctic is about to change, “to make sure science is relevant” as the new chair of the Arctic Council, Leona Aglukkaq, Conservative Minister of Health for the Canadian Government. And all this just in the past couple of weeks.

You can add to this heap the myriad of cuts to science in this country, outlined so well here, science jobs cut across the board in government departments, and the ongoing pile of rules and regulations which limit our effectiveness as federal scientists that I’ve outlined on this blog.

Someone looking at all this might conclude that the Harper Government doesn’t really appreciate science, particularly the science that his own public service generates.

So I’ll pose the question: what if we gave Harper what he seems to want? That is, provide a demonstration of what the public service might look like without science.

Government scientists are a unionized bunch. We have a union that is supposed to support us when there is an indication that our employers are negatively impacting our ability to work efficiently and effectively. If there was a health and safety concern at my office, restricting me from doing work in my lab, and my employer (the government) refused to do anything about it, I could turn to the union who would support my refusal to work in unsafe conditions.

It may not be risking my life, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that my employer is limiting my ability to effectively do my job. I require permission to seek the funding that supports my research, even before I apply for it, therefore limiting my ability to do said research. I require a manager to sign off on the papers I’ve written based on the research I’ve conducted on behalf of the crown, which has the potential to limit my ability to communicate the research I’ve conducted. I require levels upon levels of approval to hire even summer students to help me conduct my research (paid for by the funds I’ve secured), and frequently can only hire someone months after I needed them to begin initially. I work in an environment where I am actively discouraged from communicating my work to the public without expressed permission. And the more layoffs come, the more the remaining scientists are getting leaned on to pick up the slack and do the jobs of all the people who are gone in addition to their own responsibilities. I complain to my superiors about all of this, and all I hear is “this isn’t my fault, it comes from… [insert scapegoat here, including Minister’s office, Treasury Board, etc…]”.

So, here’s my proposal- if we as government scientists can’t effectively do our job, then perhaps job action is required. The Harper government doesn’t want science? Fine. Let’s see how well they do without us, and how they deal with the media circus around their own government scientists refusing to work under the current dysfunctional climate.

I am proposing that government scientists (myself included) should go on strike. PIPSC is our union. The RE group, to which we belong, has their annual general meeting June 1st, 2013. I think this should be a topic of discussion at that meeting. I’d like the Union to seek the input from its members on this, or provide some thoughts as to why this is untenable.

If not a strike, then some coordinated job action- work to rule. Refuse to participate in all those off-hand consultations that we do for the department just because we’re nice people. Walk outs. Coordinated protests. Let the media feast on government scientists in lab coats picketing right outside their government offices. We can’t talk, so our union reps can do the talking.

I’d welcome any feedback here on the topic.

I’ll say right now that this would likely be a tough sell- research scientists are deeply committed bunch to the work they do. But I am having a hard time imagining how we can expect things to get anything but worse given the direction things are going, and I don’t see how we as government scientists can sit by and watch this happen anymore. This is a majority government who we’re stuck with for at least two more years. Given their track record, I’m legitimately worried about how much more damage this bull will do in the china shop before someone finally shows them the door.

My first ever post on this site was a response to Andrew Weaver (climate scientist, and newly minted MLA in the British Columbia Legislature) that government scientists should rise up. In it, I outlined why this was a challenging thing to ask. As a single person, there is much to lose. But if we have the support of our union, there is strength in numbers.

The academic scientific community in Canada and the world has taken a stand and voiced their objections. Perhaps it’s time government scientists do the same.

How bad is it in other government departments?

A while ago now I presented the recent changes to the publication approval procedures in the Central and Arctic region of DFO, which has received a fair amount of attention in the media- collaborators are getting panicky about what this means to them reporting their work in a timely fashion, and many are wondering what it means for us as government scientists actually being able to report our findings in the scientific literature (let alone communicate it to the public).

It’s got me wondering what the situation is like elsewhere- is it the case that no one had noticed how relaxed things were in this particular region, and now we’re being brought into line with other regions? How does this process work in Pacific region? Maritimes? What about other government departments- Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Natural Resources Canada, National Defense- what are your publication procedures like? Are they worse than what we’re experiencing? Not as bad?

I would appreciate any insights as comments below- I’ll remind everyone that the identifying fields are not required to leave a comment here, you can do so safely anonymously.

The best I can do so far is some (unconfirmed) rumors I had heard swirling about that one office in Environment Canada where no one was in a director position to sign off on any publications- due to retirement of that person or something- that this situation left no mechanism to obtain approval from anywhere else, and that this was holding up all kinds of work from coming out, until someone else was in the position permanently. This seems totally outlandish, so I’m hoping someone can give me the actual story.

Silence of the science


A couple of articles have come out recently that I absolutely felt the need to share- anyone reading this blog has probably already seen them, but I figured I’d better highlight them just in case.

The first is a series of articles coming out of the Huffington Post, collectively called “stifling science” by Melissa Mancini. It’s very well-researched and hits all the major points on the issues.

The central page is not that simple to navigate to find parts 1-4, so I’ve summarized them here:

Part 1: A Cry for science in Canada

Part 2: How science stopped at the top of the world

Part 3: How Tories control the science message

Part 4: Science Cuts: Ottawa Views Pure Science As ‘Cash Cow,’ Critics Say

One line in part 3 really caught my eye:

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans put out 128 news releases in 2012, compared with 243 in 2005, a decrease of 47 per cent.”

Pretty brutal. To be fair, perhaps we should know what the stats are in the intervening years and whether 2005 is consistent with previous years under the Liberal government- however, the consistency with the patterns between DFO and the other three science-based departments suggests this is not some artefact of a difference between two randomly selected years; rather, it would appear that access to federal scientists has become more restrictive under the current ruling party.

The second is an article by Jonathon Gatehouse in Maclean’s magazine, entitled “When science goes silent“. I particularly liked the following passage:

“To call the current environment ‘dysfunctional’ would not be overstating things,” one federal scientist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, told Maclean’s. “Your bosses are only ever following marching orders, so people are made to feel that there’s no use in complaining because we are so far away from the level at which decisions are made that there’s no hope our concerns will ever make it anywhere.”

Okay, that’s not (by far) the best quote in the piece, but let’s just say I’m partial to it.

The article is very comprehensive, and very much worth the read.

It would seem that Suzanne Legault will have her hands full over the next few months; I look very much forward to her findings.