Negotiate *this*.

Last week, the union that represents government scientists (PIPSC, my former union) tabled a bold negotiating position with Treasury Board (the branch of the government that you negotiate with when you’re a Union), as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. Rather than making it about salary increases, or sick days, as one might have expected, their negotiating position puts the notion of scientific integrity front and centre. My first reaction upon reading a summary of their position was something like “Hell, yes”.

First, some background. Since the last time that they were at the bargaining table, PIPSC has watched this government systematically dismantling and fundamentally restructure the way that scientific departments operate under the federal government. Mandates changed. Facilities closed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in scientific inquiry, gone. Replaced by a focus on participation that directly involves the private sector. NRC shouldn’t do basic research, instead, they should help industry with their R&D. Want to do health research through CIHR? Better find an industry partner. Need to find a home for that 18 million dollar NMR, unique in the world and pushing the boundaries of scientific inquiry? Sorry Bucko, we’ll give you a few months to find a moving truck.

And then there’s all the stuff you don’t see, which I’ve outlined here before: a brutal administrative overload that’s put directly on researchers; additional barriers put in place to make seeking external funding more difficult; a maze of paperwork and approvals to hire even a 4-month summer student; restrictive policies around the approval of scientific publications; an approval process for conference travel that is beyond explanation or justification, the list goes on.

So, perhaps rightly, the union ought to be concerned that scientific integrity is not exactly front of mind for this government. But their move to make it part of the collective agreements is an interesting approach, one that could make it very difficult for future governments to upturn government science programs like we’ve seen since 2010. If it actually gets that far.

There are a few key pillars in what it sounds like the Union is putting forward, based on what’s been published in the Citizen so far:

1. The union has apparently proposed to work with the government to create a “scientific integrity policy” that would help to avoid issues around scientists having to seek departmental approval for the publication of results, or (presumably) being denied access to media to discuss those results. This would include what sounds like a “personal exemption” clause- one that would allow scientists to answer questions “in their personal opinion”, making clear they are not representing the department or the views of the government.

2. There is a proposal to ensure 37.5 hours per year to be dedicated to scientific conferences (public communication of research results), with approvals carried out in a timely and reasonable fashion, and refusals in writing.

3. A proposal to reinvest a portion of revenues from the sale of inventions and intellectual property to be re-invested in research programs. This proposal is fashioned on an incentive program that was in place for years under Treasury Board, but was axed in 2010.

Overall, this is a refreshing approach by the union, one that I suspect is a surprise to Treasury Board who was expecting a fight over sick days and short-term disability, one that (I think) will help cement the support of their membership in negotiations, and one that has the potential to gain significant traction with the Canadian Public as being characterized (accurately, in my opinion) as defending publicly-funded science. I’ve argued myself here that the current government may not take federal science seriously unless faced with some kind of dramatic action by the union; this is an unexpected and refreshing approach.

But I have to toss in my two cents on what I’ve seen so far, having thought about this a lot during the past few years. Overall, I think what’s being put forward sounds reasonable, but I’m not entirely sure where this “personal exemption” thing fits in, or whether it’s the right fit for every department. Frankly, I’d be pretty pleased to see federal scientists just able to speak about their research in the media. I’m even fine with receiving some support from departmental communications folks (I’m sure it’s appreciated in many cases), just not outright denials or being fed “speaking lines”. No federal scientist that I know wants to go out and use their research to speak out against government policy; we all agreed not to do that when we agreed to join the public service and follow our code of Values and Ethics, so I’m not entirely sure what this would be for. Also, the personal exemption clause could open up a can of worms in Canadian departments where the research informing the policy AND the enforcement of those policies are all under the same roof (e.g., Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada are two examples; compare that with a case where the roles are separated: Health Canada, which does the research, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which does the enforcement). In some ways, this leads to a larger discussion about how scientific departments are put together in the first place (e.g., maybe enforcement and research shouldn’t be in the same umbrella, as I’ve suggested here), rather than “freedom to communicate” per se.

Also a great proposal for professional development as well. However, I’d add there that “requests need to be answered in a timely fashion”. Better yet, set a deadline. Scientists are asked to submit requests a year in advance; surely with that much lead time, a 4-month turn-around is not so unreasonable to ask. It would save taxpayers a bundle in last-minute flights when approval for meetings is provided a day or two before…

Last, I was never in the business of making things that have market value, but if the government won’t invest in science, at least here’s a proposal to bring some back in. I will observe, however, that directing “income” to a specific program the way things are set up now is near impossible- any money that comes in goes straight to general revenue. There’d need to be substantial changes to the system to accommodate this.

Overall, it’s great to see the union come out with such a strong stand at the bargaining table. It’s hard to tell what the outcome will be, but after being pushed around by the schoolyard bully for years, it looks like PIPSC has had enough and is using their spot at the bargaining table as a means of fighting back. I know that if I was still a member, they’d have my full support. But I can’t help but feel like this is going to be one hell of a fight.

Cue Rocky theme song