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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Unmuzzle the scientists? Yes, please.

Never one to shy away from being provocative, Andrew Leach wrote an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine about why we as a society should be okay with our federal government being in control of the messaging of the research performed by it’s public servant scientists. In it, he envisions government scientists waving the flag of their evidence-based discoveries against all other considerations for informing policy, because, surely, they must think this is the only thing worth considering.

Perhaps to suit the tone of the article, Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely. To be fair, his main premise is: should government researchers be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers?

In many ways, this point is moot from the start. See the Values and Ethics code we all signed when we started our jobs with the federal public service. Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government. To do so would be grounds for dismissal. But why not let them talk about their studies and results, without the policy-related questions? People do it all the time in interviews, including academics- just listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC- few scientists are tromping out the “what we should be doing”, the vast majority are just really excited about the work they’ve done. E.g., state the facts, and conclusions, in an unbiased fashion, as we’d all like to do, and have the capacity to inform the public about our science. Over twitter, Andrew suggests that having their papers read by other scientists should be enough, but even he can appreciate the added buzz that goes along with articles when it ends up in the public discussion- he writes for Maclean’s, after all!

Returning to Andrew’s point in the article, to suggest that scientists think that their evidence should be considered above all else with regards to forming public policy (or, as Andrew puts it, “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”),
pays little credit to the intelligent folks that are employed as government scientists. Having recently been one, we are all keenly aware of all the other issues at play in shaping good public policy, and that the scientific evidence under consideration (be it health impacts, environmental impacts, discoveries of other scientific importance) is only one part of the equation. An article that I’ve pointed to many times here by Jake Rice, Senior Scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, would seem to demonstrate that we are keenly aware of the nature of science and scientific evidence in informing public policy, and the need to keep that science free of bias such that it receives proper weighting at the policy table. That is NOT to say that it’s the only thing to consider, but when folks look back 30 years later on the cod stocks of Newfoundland, we can clearly evaluate what happens when policy makers place emphasis on short-term economic gains in the face of longer-term ecological (and ultimately, economic) stability.

In many ways, NOT letting government scientists do the talking is backfiring for the government, and badly. My strategy before leaving the public service was to make sure that I had university co-authors on any paper I published, to make sure that someone would be able to discuss the results. However, as Andrew pointed out in his article, university researchers are not as bound as the government’s own scientists with regards to what they can say. Take, for example, the recent PR disaster facing Environment Canada and NRC over John Smol, and the government research paper that he was involved in. Do you think that, were the lead government scientists permitted to discuss their research, that they would have had the same messaging as Smol? No way. Government scientists are bound by their Values and Ethics code of conduct, and are repeatedly reminded of it. Give them a chance to show that they know how to conduct good science, and can communicate it, too, without getting fired or going through the 7 circles of administrivia to get permission to talk about it.

As Andrew says, “If you want to take the muzzle off government researchers, that’s fine if you want it for the right reasons. I’m all in favour of increasing the quality of information available both to our decision-makers and to the general public.” Hear hear. So why inflame the discussion by suggesting that the issue of muzzling is about something that it’s not?

I also agree with Andrew that there is a strong role for Government science, both with regards to the science one can do under it (as opposed to under academic science), and with the spot it gives you at the table when it comes to forming policy- that’s outlined in an early post over here. Ironically, though, since internal science capacity is so strapped with all the recent cuts to federal research departments, it’s groups like the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society that are in talks with the government now, keen to fill the holes that have been left. It seems that when you kick the scientists out of government, they get jobs in academia, and still try to give you the advice you employed them for in the first place.

And PS, Andrew, not all of us wear lab coats; something I am sure he is keenly aware of being a colleague of David Schindler. I tried my best to find the stereotype of economists, but I hate to say they weren’t terribly flattering. Of course, I don’t suggest nor have any reason to believe that these apply to Andrew, but that’s what you get with stereotypes in public writing. Andrew is a great writer, and has a lot of insightful things to say in his articles, but I feel like this one misses the mark entirely.

 

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.

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.

Muzzled science on a Sunday

I thought this was too good to pass up. A great spot on the muzzling of government scientists today on the Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, which you can listen to here. Speaking with Michael is Gordon McBean (pron. “McBain”), a climate researcher at the University of Western Ontario, president-elect for the International Council of Science, and former Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Canada, 1994-2000.

I especially like the reference in the intro to Kelly Leitch’s defense of the government position, which she stumbled all over on Power and Politics last week, just saying the same speaking points over, and over, and over (as Rick Mercer recently pointed out, it’s not just us scientists that are muzzled). Kelly’s inadequate response can be found here. She says that publication is the way to go (despite the fact that even that’s now in jeopardy given new rules that make my Division Manager, not me, the person responsible for reviewing and signing off on copyright transfer on publications).

McBean makes the point crystal clear: publication isn’t enough. To really be able to communicate science to the public, it requires speaking, in plain language, the research that is being done. It’s this that so rarely happens now.

The topic eventually swings around to the potential “politicization of science” as a consequence of scientists speaking about their research. I think it’s important to point out that this swings both ways- e.g., by limiting communication and directing topics of investigation, the government is helping contribute to policy-driven science, not scientifically-based policy decisions. There’s a big difference, which I’m working on hashing out for a future post.

 

50 shades of muzzle part 3- conference approval DENIED

One of the main venues that scientists have for reporting their findings to the scientific community is through scientific conferences. As a graduate student, I attended 2-4 scientific conferences a year. This provided an impetus to get some stuff done so I would have something to present, as well as provide many, many MANY opportunities (often unforeseen) in order to gain constructive feedback on the work I had presented, and an opportunity to meet collaborators for additional work.

Then, I became a government scientist. I looked with anticipation to a meeting only 3 months away, which I very much looked forward to attending. When I mentioned it to my colleagues, they laughed. “You want to go to a conference that’s only 3 months away? You should have put that in a year ago!!!” Understandably, I was confused, as I’d only just joined the public service.

However, this is the way it works. In September 2013, we science staff were asked to provide all meetings we anticipated attending for all of 2014. A FULL YEAR OR MORE IN ADVANCE. This seems strange, particularly to government scientists, since we are being asked to identify conferences we wish to attend when conference dates are typically only tentatively announced, AND, we are being asked to forecast expenditures (e.g., associated with conference travel and registration) into a future fiscal year when we don’t even know if we’ll have the money available to attend, since the government is so keen on keeping us funded on a year-to-year basis.

Okay, planning ahead is a good thing, right? You think this would mean that we’d find out we’re eligible to attend well in advance, so we can get the early registration fee, saving the taxpayer $100 to $200 dollars, and get our accommodation booked early, ensuring additional savings. Right? WRONG. Typically, we’re lucky if we find out 1-2 weeks before the conference if we’re approved to go. That means we pay premiums on airfare, because we have to book through a centralized system and therefore pay top-dollar for booking flights 1-2 weeks away, we scramble to find accommodation, and we sigh in relief that the registration we’ve already paid will be reimbursed because otherwise our abstract would have been denied.

Worse yet, this has NOTHING to do with whether you have the money to attend or not. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had external funding to send me to a conference all lined up, and been denied (with no explanation), and similarly, been approved to attend a conference for which I have no funding to attend (because I had to ask for it 1.5 years in advance, and could not secure funds for the meeting).

So, our bosses ask for 1 to 1.5 years advance notice for meetings, and we’re told 1-2 weeks in advance of the conference if we can attend or not, REGARDLESS of whether we have funding to go or not. We cost the taxpayer a premium in travel costs because of this ENTIRELY bureaucratic delay. AND, it’s yet another example of how our Canadian government keeps the science that we do suppressed from both the scientific community and the general public. Don’t like the message in that abstract that was sent for approval? DENY PERMISSION TO ATTEND. Or, grant them permission, knowing full well they have no funding to attend, because you DENIED PERMISSION for applying to certain external grants.

Even worse, you get granted permission to attend a conference and report your findings, only to find you have a babysitter in tow. Plenty of stories are in the media about Environment Canada scientists, among others, being “advised” on how to conduct themselves at conferences, and even having media advisers in tow.

What you might not have heard about was a recent Canadian conference, the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research, held January 3-5 in Windsor, Ontario, which had a special session on the Experimental Lakes Area. The meeting actually had quite a bit of media coverage here and here, but what wasn’t mentioned was that the Regional Director of DFO Science, Dr. Michelle Wheatley, was directed to attend the conference and sit in on the special session on the Experimental Lakes Area where a number of government scientists were reporting recent results on climate change and mercury research. You might not know that Dr. Wheatley spoke to each of the presenters that were government employees prior to presenting and told them to mind the questions that they answered- that they could address issues around the science they presented, but specifically not to comment on the elimination of the program, or answer questions regarding the closure of ELA by the Government of Canada. You can imagine how these staff must have felt to have their boss in the audience monitoring their every word. Apparently, if you’re a government employee, you need a babysitter who is capable of terminating your employment in the room if you are presenting the science you have conducted.

 

 

Is the government breaking the law?

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Recent articles by Margaret Munro and from the CBC have raised the possibility that restricting the communications of federal scientists could actually be illegal. I, for one, am very interested to see how that one plays out.

However, it raises an interesting issue- by shutting down federal programs like the Experimental Lakes Area, the government is actually failing to meet their contractual obligations for memorandums of understanding with a number of partners- with some pretty significant financial implications (and we all know how much Fisheries and Oceans likes their agreements with external researchers these days). Could they be sued for not meeting those obligations?

Case in point #1: the Lake Ecosystem NanoSilver experiment, or LENS, led by Chris Metcalfe and other researchers at Trent University. This is an NSERC-funded strategic grant worth over 3/4 of a million dollars, plus a bunch more in leveraged funding from (perhaps ironically) Environment Canada. As a partner on the grant, DFO’s main obligation was the staff and facility at the Experimental Lakes Area. So- what do you contribute as a research partner when you close the facility that you were providing? Isn’t that a breach of contract?

Case #2: the recently-announced 4.4 Million dollar NSERC-funded Network grant, the Canadian Network for Aquatic Ecosystem Services, which was officially announced last week. Again, DFO is featured prominently as a partner on this very significant grant, and, like the LENS project, the main contribution was the involvement of the Experimental Lakes Area. What you don’t know is that DFO has been scrambling to figure out just how they will be able to remain as partners on this initiative, given that they just shut down the place where a major component of one of the research themes was meant to take place.

Don’t forget that the US government and Smithsonian institution are still involved in ongoing monitoring from a mercury addition experiment that is in recovery phase; METAALICUS. Given that the work from this experiment is contributing to US and UN policies on mercury emissions, they might presumably have a vested interest in seeing that work follow through.

Given that DFO enters legally-binding agreements in these types of projects, it stands to reason that if they are unable to provide their commitments, they should be held legally responsible. Realistically, it takes some pretty deep pockets to sue the government, but I really wonder if this is one of the scenarios that the department “risk managed” when they decided to close this facility.