Bringing science back into the fold- top to bottom

During my short tenure with the Federal Public Service as a Research Scientist, I have some observations that I’d like to share, that I think summarize some of the problems with the way in which the current system operates. A lot of it appears already on this blog, but hasn’t really been summed up in one place. I decided as I left my job with the Government of Canada that it might be a good idea for a sort of “farewell” post, but here I am, still posting blogs nearly 5 months into a new job. So, take it for what it’s worth. I’ll start by outlining what I think (in my personal opinion) are some of the major shortfalls with the current way in which government science is operating, and will end with some recommendations as to how one might go about repairing the process so that it functions more efficiently than it does currently, particularly given that most science-based departments are running at a lower capacity than they were prior to 2012.

(some of) The problems (as they exist currently):

1. Government science is becoming too reactionary. Worse yet, our Assistant Deputy Ministers are telling us that this is the way of the future- they will identify the problems facing Canadians, and government scientists will give you the answer. Or, more accurately, find academic partners who can, because we don’t have the budget to do it ourselves. However, this raises an important question: how can you anticipate the problems of the future if all you’re doing is reacting to current needs? Is the anticipation of future needs something that should be left to academic investigations? Not necessarily. There are types of scientific investigation that can be undertaken by government that is too challenging to do in academics; large-scale work that requires large budgets (large relative to academia, but not necessarily to government departmental operating budgets), or those that operate over long time scales (recall the Experimental Lakes Area) are often unachievable under typical tri-council funding envelopes. Instead, government scientists are told that we should use small pots of targeted funding to address specific issues in a piecemeal fashion. Somehow I don’t see this advancing our understanding particularly well, or utilizing the role of scientific investigation under government in a particularly useful way.

2. Government science is becoming too top-heavy. Need to hire a summer student? Here are the five (yes, five) forms you’ll need to fill out, and make sure you leave two months for the security clearance to pass. Assuming none of the forms get lost after you submit them. Want to go to a conference? Be sure to fill out your event approval form, have it approved, then submit your travel request, and do it all a year in advance, before you even know if you have the budget available to attend. We’ll be sure to let you know 3 days before the conference starts, because these things take at least a year to review, of course. Want to apply for external funding? Make sure you give your supervisor your completed funding application at least three months in advance of the due date for the funding to make sure we approve of the work you are requesting funding for. And, hope that some bureaucrat up the line doesn’t forget to sign the paperwork. All of these processes go through layers and layers of administration: from you to your section head, your section head to your division manager, division manager to regional director…. on and on. Typically, it’s assistant deputy ministers (or higher) making the decisions (making one wonder what the roles of those in the middle are meant to be). From an efficiency standpoint, the Canadian taxpayer is allowing for a system to function where people in 6-digit paygrades are reviewing the most ridiculous day-to-day operational minutia. And I thought all those cuts were supposed to target this back-office waste

3. There is a severe disconnect between the administration of government science and the implementation of it. Typically, one can expect someone at the level of Regional Director of Science to have a PhD, and at least some appreciation for how the scientific method is carried out, but you’d be hard pressed to find one that has an active research program. It’s extremely rare to find anyone above that level with doctoral-level qualifications. The concern is that the people administering budgets, approving travel, etc., have very little appreciation for what is actually required to carry out scientific study, the importance of scientific conferences in communicating results and gaining feedback from the scientific community and advancing the science that one carries out.

4. Government science will go out of its way to ensure the work performed by it’s scientists goes unnoticed by the general public. Interview requests that circle internally only to be denied. Denying scientists the ability to discuss their work, so as to ensure that the interpretation in the media is accurate, leaving it to others to do the interpretation. Failing to promote the excellent work of some very bright and respected scientists that in any other context would be promoted and celebrated.

So what are some possible solutions to these ailments? Here are some, in my humble opinion:

Provide more latitude for government scientists to develop independent research, identify and anticipate future issues. Give government researchers a chance to get in front of emerging issues, instead of always reacting. Back in “the good ol’ days”, people talk of “A”-base funding, which was essentially money you spent on the research you wanted to do. This money doesn’t really exist anymore. Was that the most appropriate way to allocate it? Perhaps not. Perhaps you could make a competitive application internally for “anything goes” projects, that aim to be forward-thinking vs. reactionary, that is sufficiently resourced to provide meaningful work.

Trust your staff. If someone is a supervisor, let them supervise. Give them accountability, and responsibility, and the resources to be able to accept that responsibility meaningfully. Don’t require the most simple decisions to be sent up to the ADM to be approved. It’s a massive waste of time and resources, and makes people feel undervalued.

Let people do what you hired them to do. All that paperwork I mentioned above? Guess who’s doing it? Research scientists. The government is hiring scientists and then asking them to do the work of administrative assistants. Don’t get me wrong, I think administrative assistants do great work, and are critically important. But that’s just the point- let’s make sure that people have the staffing resources so that we aren’t paying people a scientists salary to be filling out paperwork and dealing with things like travel requests- make sure that the support staff exist to ensure that they can do the science they were paid to do- to make sure we are exploiting their expertise to it’s fullest.

Cut the red tape. I remember hearing this colloquialism prior to working for the federal government and not really thinking much of it. Having lived behind the curtain for some time, I now have the appropriate context. The obsession over redundant and seemingly endless paperwork chains and processes for approval of the simplest tasks that have been invented by the federal bureaucracy are truly frightening. There are too many people making a living whose sole reason for being is making, managing and passing around forms for approval. There needs to be a more sensible approach to approval processes in general. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy thinks so too; the result is that every two to three years, a new, more complicated process is rolled out, rather than one that tries to simplify the process.

In departments that are science-based, have people who are active scientists participating in administration, right up to the Deputy Minister. I can remember looking at the department heads, deans and presidents of the universities I attended during my graduate training as a scientist, and being impressed at how many of them maintained active research programs through their administration terms. While you do get some career administrators in academics, many approach administration as something you serve your time in, and then ultimately get to return to your research career, doing science. This is facilitated often by providing administrators “research leave”, for some amount of time to ensure they can keep their investigative programs going. Why can’t a similar approach be considered within the public service? It would ensure a much stronger connection between the work done on the ground and the level at which resources are allocated.

Let scientists promote their work. Either find some way that permits scientists to discuss their work within the context of the existing values and ethics code, or scrap the code and find something that works better. Leaving our government scientists out of the public discussion doesn’t make anyone look good (neither the government, who ends up looking like they are hiding something, nor the scientists, who can’t speak to their research), and doesn’t do anything to advance or promote the science conducted by government. There is mounting evidence that trying to limit media access to scientists is doing far more damage to the image of how the government manages science than any possible harm that could come from allowing scientists to discuss their work. Just google “unmuzzle science” and see how many times references to the Government of Canada come up; note how many of those references are made with respect to the current government. It’s every single hit on the first (and most of the second) page of the search.

Re-consider using arms-length organizations to conduct your science. It’s worth noting that many (if not most) of the issues above could be addressed by organizations that operate in an arms-length fashion- e.g., provide the budget, but leave the rest up to them. This is the way the Fisheries Research Board of Canada used to operate before being folded into the government bureaucracy, and becoming the Department of the Environment (and later, Fisheries and Oceans Canada). Arms-length organization eliminates the perception of overbearing control, and lets the organization figure out the level of administrative oversight that fits them best, rather than trying to find the one solution that works for every single department.

Scientists need to run for office. Having scientists involved through the administrative chain is likely not enough. We need scientists who are willing to take office and be a part of the political discussion. It’s encouraging to see people like Andrew Weaver and Ted Hsu that are taking up this challenge.

We need a scientifically-literate, informed public. It would be great of federal scientists could play a role in helping create that literacy. Instead, we are lucky to have a number of organizations that are helping in that regard. Evidence for Democracy, who advocates for the transparent use of science and evidence in public policy and government decision-making. Let’s talk science, who has been instrumental in promoting science literacy among Canada’s youth for over 20 years. And so many others. There is a niche to be filled by government-based science outreach that has yet to be filled.

Come election time, we need people to think critically about the policies being proposed, and who can make informed decisions based on evidence. It’s worth noting that we have one coming up soon in Canada, where the public can decide whether they want to maintain the current course we are on, or whether there are alternative perspectives on how government science should work. I argue that we should encourage all our candidates running for public office to express their issues on the role of government science, what role it plays moving into the future, and how they might facilitate that vision.