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.

 

Steve Campana knows how to make an exit

I haven’t written much here since leaving DFO, but I couldn’t let this one slide.

Steve Campana, a scientist with DFO for more than 30 years, retired this week to take up an academic position in Iceland. His exit speech is an encouraging piece of confirmation that I was not alone, as a DFO scientist, and that the issues I encountered weren’t just isolated to my region (Central and Arctic).

Take 20 minutes out of your day and listen to his interview on CBC’s The Current. The interview is here.

I was pleased to hear that the conversation was not just about the whole muzzling issue, but it raised all the other barriers to government scientists doing their job, that I’ve outline here; limiting access to external funds, administrative barriers to travel, hiring, communications, he pretty much does a great job of summarizing everything that is wrong with the current state of affairs in DFO science, and I can’t imagine other government departments are that different.

Steve’s assessment is that government science is in a death spiral, and that to get the department (DFO in this case) back to where it was even 7 years ago is nearly impossible given what’s been put in place now. I was only there for 4 years, and with the changes I saw even during that time, I have to agree.

While I’m happy I got out when I did, and am glad to have some independent confirmation of my own experience, it’s independent confirmation of a terrible state of affairs for government science. With every added voice to this issue, it’s another loss to the department.

 

Let my fellow scientists speak

For those interested, I have an op-ed appearing in the Ottawa Citizen tomorrow. For those who can’t get to a newsstand in Ottawa, the link to it is here.

Luckily, the folks at the Ottawa Citizen have a better knack for headlines than I do- this is a vast improvement over what I had suggested 😉

Apparently they have the rights to the piece now, but I am allowed to post an excerpt along with the link to what is now deemed the original (on their site). So here’s a teaser…


 

Six months ago, I was a government scientist. Then, the general consensus among my colleagues was that communications practice was more limiting than is reasonably necessary. Just last month, a letter signed by 800 international scientists echoed this sentiment, urging the Canadian government to “remove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”

This perception was verified as reality by a recent report by Evidence for Democracy that graded federal departmental policies on media access to government scientists. The grade average across 16 departments was a C-, with four departments failing and only one receiving a B or higher (Department of National Defence). Strikingly, Canada lags far behind departmental policies in the United States, both current and past.

But it’s worse than the report suggests. As the report acknowledges, policy is not practice, and evidence is mounting that the current practice in many departments is more restrictive than outlined in the policies. My former department, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), received a relatively high grade of C, despite widely reported cases in which media have been denied access to DFO scientists. Max Bothwell and Kristi Miller are two prominent examples.

I worked with DFO for nearly four years….


Okay, go read the post at the Citizen if you want the rest, and thanks for reading.

A big thanks to Katie Gibbs and Alana Westwood at Evidence for Democracy for encouraging me to write the piece, for editorial suggestions and advice on how to submit an op-ed to the uninitiated.

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.

Returning the shout-out

Holy carp! I just got a shout out to this blog from Dr. David Schindler in his recent op-ed found in the Royal Society of Canada spring 2014 update. What a pleasure to know he’s among the readers of this site. It’s only fair that I return the favour, you can read his discussion piece here:

https://rsc-src.ca/en/about-us/our-academies/academy-science/spring-2014-update#Schindler

In a nutshell, Schindler discusses the recent events around the Experimental Lakes Area within the context of the general decline of federal science (and democracy in Canada) under the current government. It’s well worth the read. Among my favourite passages is this:

“As F.R. Hayes, the Chairman of the now-defunct Fisheries Research Board of Canada, astutely predicted in his book on the history of the FRBC, The Chaining of Prometheus, managers in the civil service “will slyly slip sawdust into the oats of the research donkey until the animal becomes moribund.” As described below, under the Harper Government, the diet of DFO’s current research donkey appears to contain no oats whatsoever. It is high time that research to underpin environmental policy is once again done at arms-length from the political process, as it was under the Fisheries Research Board.”

Hear hear.

The other strategy that seems fully rampant under the current leadership is to keep the donkey tied to a post and walking in circles so that he can’t get at the oats (or sawdust) at all- filling out endless reams of paperwork and watching it creep it’s way through the administratosphere for approval to perform seemingly simple tasks, like seeking travel approval, requesting library books, trying to staff positions, publication approval… issues that are also well summarized by a recent anonymous comment on this blog.

 

 

Career advice from a government science ex-pat

One of the earliest posts I wrote generated this comment, asking about my perspective on career advice in the public service vs. other outlets for scientific research.

The main question was: would I recommend new graduates focus their job search toward private/industry research, versus government research? The short answer is, I don’t have a lot of experience doing private or industry-embedded research, so I’ll say right now that I am not qualified to make that comparison. Instead, I’ll turn the question a bit, and answer this: would I recommend that new graduates in fisheries or aquatic science consider a position in the public service, specifically with Fisheries and Oceans Canada?

Good question. One might guess from reading the many entries on this blog that perhaps I am challenged by the prospect of continuing on in the public service, let alone recommend it as an option to someone else. [NOTE: from the perspective of the postdoc working in the public service, see the guest post that a colleague of mine wrote here last year].

Let me try and frame my answer in the most positive light possible. When I look around me, many of my colleagues have succeeded as government scientists *despite* the barriers and issues they have faced in the past. New barriers are emerging, but I suspect that the same ones that have found past success will continue to do so in future. In large part (and I think most of whom I am thinking of would agree with me), the success of these folks depends on their ability to “find ways” to make things work around the barriers; get the science done *in spite* of the thousands of forms and rules and micromanaging. I have tremendous respect for my colleagues who are able to maintain these successful programs, despite the barriers they face.

So, if you are particularly tenacious, and perhaps looking to find an exceptionally difficult path from A to B, then a job with DFO science is a challenge I would definitely recommend. In all seriousness, the future of good government science relies on folks with that kind of attitude who are willing to take that challenge on. My fear is that many of my colleagues are just getting fed up of the barriers, and either giving up, retiring, or looking elsewhere. I now count myself among them.

I’m particularly worried about what future job ads for DFO research scientists might actually look like. Recently, our Assistant Deputy Minister traveled right across the country, to discuss plans for moving forward with the department. Lots of discussion around “more with less”, as expected, but he also described his vision for what the next iteration of DFO scientist might look like. What was described sounded more like a science coordinator than a research scientist. That is- beg for scrips and scraps of targeted departmental funding, partner with universities to get the work done, feed the applied science questions back to the department to inform policy. This sounds not so bad on the surface, and frankly reflects a good deal of how business is done these days. But this is reactionary science; someone high enough in the administratosphere has been told there is a problem enough times that they have allocated dollars to it, and that’s what’s getting the science done. What about funding your research scientists to do the work that anticipates the *next* big problem? There was a distinct sense from what I heard that this is not what government research is anymore.

Things seem fundamentally broken at the moment- the administrative load seems unrealistically heavy; despite losing massive numbers of front-line staff, our administrative architecture seems nearly untouched (remember, Tony Clement told us that exactly the opposite was going to happen with these cuts, which the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s numbers show is not the case), buoyed by new and exciting ways to make more forms and templates to fill out when seeking approval for a single task.

Perhaps one day things will change, but will it be soon enough to retain—and perhaps more importantly, recruit—the best and brightest? Do you need the best and brightest to carry out reactionary science, and simply do what’s asked of them? Is that the job of a research scientist? If not, what picture does that paint for government science in the future?

As for me, I’ve had it. I commend my colleagues for carrying on in the face of what felt to me like the plight of Sisyphus, I’m done pushing that particular rock. I’ll see how well I fare with getting to the top of the mountain somewhere else.

With that said, I’ve probably got at least one more post in me, but after that, I think that’ll be it for me running this blog. I’m looking forward to spending more of my time conducting science, and blogging about that instead.

Cue the music…

 

A case for Government Science outreach

From the time I was doing my undergraduate degree, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in science outreach. Specifically, designing hands-on activities and experiments to get people (and in my case, kids) excited and engaged about science. That they, too, can participate in that mind-blowing moment of discovery, where you go through a process and reach that “a-ha!” moment, and finally understand how it works, and what’s going on.

Why is this important? Because as a voting society, people need to be able to make reasonably informed choices. They need to be able to look at the plots of data around climate warming and it’s projected impact on society and convince themselves that there might be something going on and to be worried about, rather than relying entirely on the opinion of the person on the television that can shout the loudest.

[As a slight aside, I can’t underestimate the importance of this kind of outreach. I grew up in a lower-income neighborhood, and even though I’m the only person from my peer group to complete any post-secondary education, while I like to think I was at least in the top 5%, a lot of those other smart kids ended up doing their own things (and making success on their own terms), or in some unfortunate cases, put those smarts to less productive endeavors. Part of the problem is that very few of the smart kids at that impressionable age get the chance to even realize that a. they are indeed smart, and that b. there is this unbelievable career in having your mind repeatedly blown in the STEM field; That science and math class can be interesting, cool and engaging. What better way to show this than by having scientists come and, not just show you, but get you to do what they do?]

I then joined the public service. I was surprised to find much more than passive interest in any kind of science outreach, and shocked to discover that we were afforded a single day of our public service per year towards volunteerism. Needless to say, my science outreach activities have since stalled.

Given recent changes in the public service, just about any kind of public science outreach is near impossible. Communications with the media are vetted beyond any sense of reason. Give a talks at a scientific conference, and expect a warning from your boss about what kinds of questions you can answer, or be provided with a minder. Travel to virtually anywhere these days is nearly impossible, and requires a level of bureaucratic acrobatics through paperwork that I still am unable to fully comprehend.

Contrast that with what the Government (and DFO specifically) says they want to do. To its credit, science outreach is specifically outlined in DFO’s recently published Science framework.  Under section 4.4 of the document, it states:

“A Strategic Science Outreach Strategy was developed to ensure that DFO Science proactively communicates with its clients. The key goals of the strategy are to:

  • Ensure that scientific advice is fully considered in policy development and decision-making;
  • Build public and stakeholders confidence and trust;
  • Explain DFO Science and the benefits for Canadians.

The emphasis is placed on using modern communication methods to deliver information and advice to our clients and stakeholders, and to the general public as well.”

Clearly, the department is concerned about it’s public image, and rightly so. Other summaries around the issues of science outreach from government scientists are well summarized here and here. But where is it now? This statement is coming from a department that operates a twitter account that’s about as interactive as my vacuum cleaner, and you can be sure that every tweet passes across 10 different desks before it ever sees the light of day.

It would seem that there is a vast chasm between where the department wants to be vs. where they are currently.

Part of the problem may lie in what the government has traditionally thought of as outreach. This passage on a not-too-long-ago Environment Canada page on Education and Outreach is telling. Based on their description, some glossy information pamphlets, a website entry or two, organized ad campaigns and some carefully controlled workshops is all you need for outreach. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

To be engaged in science outreach, people (kids included) need to connect with real people, not glossy pamphlets. So much can come from a personal connection, an education moment where you can give someone the opportunity to discover for themselves the importance of science in their lives.

It’s great to hear from at least one government department that science outreach is a priority in the future. But given the bureaucratic strangle-hold on everything from getting what you say approved to being allowed to walk out the door, to being able to dedicate more than a single day a year to volunteer somewhere and organize a science outreach activity, I can’t imagine how it will function under the current climate.

Hopefully the strategy will pave a way through the paperwork, and the noose can be loosened so that a real government science outreach strategy can become a reality.