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.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

A sad state of (library) affairs

Recently, I decided to test drive our new means of requesting material through the DFO library since ours closed last year. I wanted to see just how feasible it was, and see if the claims that this would increase efficiencies was anywhere near true. Not surprisingly, it’s a bit of a horror show.

Here’s a summary of my experience so far:

Timeline: It typically takes 4 weeks between the time when you request material to the time it appears in your mailbox. What appears in your mailbox is a giant grey zippered pouch for shipping the books back and forth, with clear instructions that only the book received can be sent back in the particular bag it arrived in.

Borrowing time: it’s supposed to be three weeks, but in every case so far, the start date of the borrowing time is anywhere from 3 to 7 days prior to the time I actually receive the material, meaning in reality that the time I have with the material is closer to two weeks.

Renewing items: random, at best. In one case, the item I ordered was through interlibrary loan, which meant I couldn’t renew the item and it had to be sent back to the university from which it was borrowed. I was lucky in that the librarian found me an on-line copy- not a DFO digitized copy, but one that was digitized by another agency and posted on-line (more on digitization in a moment). In another case, a renewal request was totally ignored. In another, there’s been no request to have the material sent back. I should also note that I have many items, from my understanding still in the collection, that are in my office from being on loan prior to the closure of our library.

Bags, bags, bags: Get more than 3 or 4 items in your office at once, and it’s a nightmare. Imagine doing a literature review- I can recall during my graduate degree (and even more recent than that) having anywhere from 20-30 books on loan at a time to review past literature on a given topic. Now imagine doing that using this system- 30 books, and 30 grey bags, strewn about the office, which you can’t mix up… the resulting nightmare is not a challenge to imagine. Never mind the 4 weeks that you’re having to wait for every item you order. Just getting the material you need in place could take a year.

Now, this wasn’t supposed to be a big issue, because the department was digitizing their entire collection, right? Wrong. According to recently posted order papers, digitized holdings represent less than one percent of the DFO collection, and the “initiative” to get things digitized relies on what overworked librarians remain tending the catalogue to do it in their spare time. Some initiative.

If this is “modernization” and somehow meant to improve things, it’s certainly not improving my ability to do my job. How this process is saving any money, vs. maintaining a single librarian on staff at each site to manage the previous collection (plus the added time it takes me to get the material and even do anything with it) is beyond me.

DFO provides Christmas gifts for scientists

Yes, it’s that time of year again, and to celebrate the holidays, Fisheries and Oceans Canada generously opened the doors of it’s Eric Marshall library earlier this month for any and all to pillage.

“BF Manly’s Randomization, Bootstrap and Monte Carlo Methods in Biology? Aw, Mom, you shouldn’t have!!” Yes, imagine the glee on so many children’s faces this Christmas as they light up having been given the cast-offs of DFO’s library holdings.

While the Department has issued numerous statements indicating that the material in the library is digitized, and “rare” texts are being consolidated at other institutions, the fact of the matter is that when the current librarian retired in July, she was nowhere near completed her task of digitizing material or of even simply cataloguing what was held at the library, and the “closure” at this particular facility has been a total gong-show. However, this seems to be par for the course, as DFO showed us what consolidation looked like at the Maurice Lamontange Institute earlier this year.

When the doors were swung open at the Eric Marshall Library for anyone to help themselves, a majority of the collection to be shipped still wasn’t packed; shelves that were supposed to be “off limits” were marked clearly with- clear packing tape. Yes, a single strip of clear packing tape across an entire shelf, much of which was falling off the first day. The person supervising on that first day was prompted to put up some signs when it was clear people were walking off with this (yet uncatalogued, unpacked but supposedly rare enough to be designated to ship somewhere else) valuable material.

The taking was mostly unmonitored- there was someone at the desk for the first day, who was not interested in seeing what people had in their boxes as they walked out the door, and people were in and out all week under no supervision whatsoever.

What has been lost with the closure of the Eric Marshall Library? Because the physical catalogue was incomplete, it’s a shame that we’ll never know. Even if people walked off with catalogued books, there’d be no way to trace them because the pillaging was unmonitored. Most scientists in the building are still trying to find room on their office bookshelves for what they managed to pillage. As are the many consultants and researchers from the province and other NGOs who grabbed what they could.

Keeping with the Christmas spirit, we hope that DFO will generously donate the remainder of the collection to pensioners to ward off the cold Winnipeg winter.

Ho, ho, ho.

In conclusion, I thought I’d finish off with another perspective on all of this. While they aren’t my words, I thought I’d use this space to republish the musings of another anonymous government scientist concerned about the loss of this irreplaceable resource. The text was originally published here.

The loss of seven out of nine DFO regional science libraries is a big tragedy.

Here is a link to one comment suggesting it was an act of “Libricide.”

The first step in the process was to move the libraries from Science into Information Management and Technology Services (IMTS) several years ago. At that point DFO Science became merely a client of another sector of the department for library services. It is not known whether DFO Science management put up any opposition to the cuts when IMTS announced their plans last year.

IMTS operates under a corporate business model. Under this model, one sector of government sells its services to another sector of government with the objective of providing the least amount of service for the largest possible service fee. This would seem to be a very bad business model for running a government department that has the prime objective of long-term public good — giving the public the best return possible on their tax dollar across all sectors of government though working co-operatively.

The decision to cut the libraries was made by executives within DFO rather than imposed by higher levels of government. It was done without any prior consultation with the DFO research community and researchers have been kept largely in the dark throughout the process. There has been very little information provided to DFO science staff or the public throughout the process.

The cuts were carried out in great haste apparently in order to meet some unknown agenda. No records have been provided with regard to what material has been dumped or the value of this public property. No formal attempt was made to transfer material to libraries of existing academic institutions.

Each of the seven regional libraries had thousands upon thousands of items in their holdings including unique valuable material of local regional significance documenting research into aquatic systems, fish stocks and fisheries carried out in the 1800s and early 1900s, as well as more recent grey literature such as laboratory reports, consultants reports, research vessel survey reports, reports of commissions of enquiries into fisheries etc.

The Department has claimed that all useful information from the closed libraries is available in digital form. This is simply not true. Much of the material is lost forever.

Local staff in the regions were given a brief opportunity to scavenge through the piles of books, journals and documents not wanted by the remaining two DFO Science libraries. Books and other library material already on loan to researches were never recalled, indicating a chaotic and haphazard process.

No explanations have been provided with regard to how the limited space in the remaining two DFO Science libraries will accommodate material from the regions deemed (by whom?) too important to destroy. One can only assume that the amount of material not being dumped is relatively small.

The official DFO statements have indicated that an “alternate service delivery system” is to be put in place to meet the library needs of the regions and that operations will not be affected by the library closures. To date this alternate service delivery system is not in place and no information has been provided on what form it will take.

The impact of the library closures on both the operations and the morale of DFO research staff have been immense.