Open your mouth and say… Science.

How refreshing.

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DFO scientist after being alterted of new communications policies on Friday.

After much talk of “cautious optimism” from just about everyone regarding the new Liberal government in power in Canada, we are seeing some of that optimism being confirmed. I and many others have commented that the first and simplest step to restoring public trust in our government’s commitment to science would be to lift communications restrictions on scientists speaking about their research. After being arguably one of the most strict enforcers of government science “muzzling”, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was the first to announce to it’s scientists that there was a change in communications rules (see media stories here, here, here, and here). An announcement was also made by Environment Canada to it’s scientists Friday. Based on this statement from Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the other science-based ministries should be following suit this week, if they haven’t already.

Not only does this immediately improve the current perception of the new government with regards to how they value science- and perhaps more importantly, their scientists and the trust and respect this policy change says they have for them- but it is also a big olive branch and sign of good faith as PIPSC (the union representing most Canadian government scientists) prepares for bargaining. A clause defending “scientific integrity” was one of the platforms of their current bargaining position, and this policy change goes a long way towards checking that particular item off the list.

This is a wonderful, and badly needed policy move, in and of itself.

Now, the hard work starts. As I outlined in my many rantings here, and in other places, we now need to change the culture surrounding government science.

We need to make sure we have managers willing to make decisions, NOT the ones who were simply happy to pass information up the pipe and read our marching orders like we’ve had the past 5 years. Maybe we need a new system of management in government science departments altogether.

We need to reinvest in government science; hire new scientists, build new programs of research. Millions of dollars were stripped from government programs, and thousands of front-line jobs were lost. What few research dollars that came back were in highly targeted research areas. Provide a means for government scientists to address not only the “targeted” needs, but also to build their own research programs; you’d be surprised how good they are at finding and addressing the problems you have on their own.

We need to remove administrative barriers for hiring, travel and securing of external research funds. It can’t take 2+ years to hire new scientists and permanent staff. We have a broken Fisheries Act that is understaffed EVERYWHERE on the front lines; science, fisheries protection, and enforcement. Invest so that we can understand the resource, protect it properly, and enforce the act when it’s violated.

With a commitment to ministers being able to actually have some say in what happens in their departments, and this new change in communications policy for Canada’s scientists, it shows something the previous government seemed to have very little of: trust. If that trust permeates through a renewal in management, and can also be supported by commitments to reinvest in science in dollars and people, then the real change that’s needed to make government science work again might just happen.

I think I can now remove the “cautious” preface from my optimism regarding where things are headed for government science.

 

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2 thoughts on “Open your mouth and say… Science.

  1. I received a comment over the website, and figured it would be better to put here and respond publicly. Here’s the comment:

    “The majority of government scientists are hired and paid to carry out Applied Research. However, many have, because of the lack of monitoring of their projects, have shifted their focus to Basic research and want to communicate their results. Can’t blame them to want to communicate the results, however, that is not what most are being paid to do. Research into funding for government department research budgets confirms this. Can you provide information as to what type of research results scientists are being muzzled on? I would argue that it is basic research.”

    Example 1. Kristi Miller was unable to speak to media regarding her research on viruses as it relates to salmon stocks and aquaculture on the west coast. http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/dfo-scientist-says-privy-council-silenced-her-1.987107.

    Example 2. Max Bothwell was unable to speak regarding his research on an invasive algal species which can have negative effects on stream fishes, including trout and salmon: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/federal-scientist-media-request-generates-email-frenzy-but-no-interview-1.2759300

    Both of these are highly applied, not exactly blue sky science. My own former program (where I currently continue to do research), the Experimental Lakes Area was entirely conceived and operated as an applied science research facility (understanding human impacts on aquatic ecosystems), and it was closed, along with the branch of DFO examining contaminants in fisheries. All applied, all what they were being paid to do, but not what you’d call “basic research”. And yet, still suppressed by the previous federal government.

    Further, I’d argue that if there’s applied research that isn’t being done by the few government scientists that are left, it’s because there’s no resources to do it. The government gives it’s scientists a long list of priority research areas every year, but very rarely money to actually conduct or hire the people to do the investigations.

    I’d also go a bit further and say that while research in many government labs should be applied, that the direction of the NRC away from basic research and towards a “concierge” service for industry under the previous government does great disservice to that particular department. Very few of the marketable discoveries in NRC that emerged previously were conceived because industry asked them to help solve a problem. A good list of non-directed inventions that came from NRC in the past is here: http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/eng/achievements/highlights/2006/inventions.html

    So while some departments should have directed research, that can be done by directing funding to those specific projects, which scientists will do. But it doesn’t mean there’s no room for basic research in government either, under any department. It’s often where you make your greatest discoveries.

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