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.

 

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.

A call for contributors

passingthetorch

Passing the bunsen burner. Send me your rants on behalf of Canadian government scientists.

If one can blush on a blog, this might be what it looks like.

After posting my adieu blog last night, I was lucky enough to receive the following message, anonymously, over my contact page today:

“You’ve developed an incredibly valuable brand. Instead of letting the brand die, become its executive director and editor-in-chief. There are many out there who could be contributing content, if they felt safe doing so. You’ve been doing all the heavy lifting for a year and a half. Time for the community to start helping you.”

Aw shucks.

I will admit I had initially considered handing the blog off to the next person pissed off enough about the current situation in government science as I was (am), but was worried about doing so in a fashion that wouldn’t result in giving it to the wrong person and watching them hit “delete” on the whole site. So, I figured just letting this sit here in testament to my observations and outrage over the past one-plus years was better than nothing. Clearly, I can’t make too much more contribution on my end without looking disingenuous, as I’m no longer on the inside, but keeping this blog going with contributions from others is something I’d happily do, and maintain an outlet for the word to get out.

I have in the past been lucky enough to receive a few guest contributions (see here and here), so if I can keep this going with contributions from others, I’ll be happy to. Anyone can contact me safely and anonymously through the contact me page (no e-mail address required, or just type in a bogus one), and I’ll be happy to consider your contributions for posting here.

Thanks to those who have contacted me to encourage me to keep this page alive. Now, to my former colleagues in the public service: the rest is up to you.

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…

 

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.

Unmuzzled Postdoc

phd_postdoc

I was lucky enough to be contacted by someone doing a Visiting Fellowship at a government lab recently who was willing to share their experiences “from the inside”. Always welcome of another perspective, I think this is a valuable one for anyone considering ticking the VF box on their NSERC postdoctoral applications, and provides some valuable information to let people know what they’re getting into.

—-

Postdocs are a desperate bunch. We’re in the weird in-between world of not quite students, but not yet in permanent employ. Many of us float around for a few years (a little contact work here, a bit of consulting there…) in the search for a steady income.

With the success rates of NSERC postdocs at an all-time low, many of us are turning to alternative funding options, including the “Visiting Fellow in Government Labs” program that’s run through NSERC. It sounds appealing – $47,000 a year to work with high-calibre government scientists on applied questions. But there’s another side.

First off, NSERC contributes $0 to the VF program.  Yes, that’s $0.  All the funding comes from the government researcher’s budget.  So while you can apply to the VF program through NSERC and get put on a list of “pre-approved” candidates, until someone with $47,000 comes along, you’re out of luck. NSERC basically acts as a screening tool, and an annoying façade.

You see, even if you do partner with a government scientist (either before you apply, or from the pre-approved candidates list), the first line in your letter of offer will be something like “nothing in this letter of offer is to be construed as an offer of employment with the Government of Canada”. What?  Here’s how it works.

The government department that wants to “hire” you passes the $47,000 on to NSERC, who then dishes it out to you in convenient monthly instalments.  NSERC acts like the middleman.  And what does this mean for you? You’re not considered an employee. Except when you are. Stay with me.

Government postdocs through the VF program aren’t considered employees for what I would call the benefits – you can’t apply for internal job competitions, you don’t pay into the pension, and receive no benefits.  In my department, this also means I can’t get access to my work email anywhere but my Windows XP desktop at work (and the firewall keeps me from checking any other web-based email).  As postdocs, we’re often working long/odd hours at home, or trying to wrap up that manuscript in the evenings or whenever we have time.  Not so. But wait, there’s more!

As a government postdoc, you’re held to the same policies and standards as your pension-earning, full-time indeterminate boss.  This includes talking with media & the public, and travel.

Postdocs are supposed to be networking with other professionals, and trying to find work.  This often happens at scientific conferences, but imagine trying to plan your travel when it all has to be approved by several levels of management, could be denied, or even granted too late to go (or if you do go, the cost is insane).  Obviously not good for early-career researchers.

There’s no formal orientation to all of this – you’re expected to stumble through it on your own (or have your immediate boss explain things to you).  But many research scientists (or even entire divisions) have had so little experience with the VF program that they’re learning along with you.  In a perfect world, the VF program would be a gateway to identify likely candidates for federal research jobs, but sadly, the program’s potential is lost on the vast majority of people that make such decisions.

But if you choose to go down this route (and trust me, it’s not all bad), here are a few tips from the other side:

-expect a bureaucratic nightmare for at least your first month. Security clearance for your building, setting up your computer/email address, and whatnot will take longer than you might think.

-unlike all of your other payroll deposits, the first one will be a paper cheque, so check your mailbox (or see your admin staff if they squirrel cheques away somewhere safe)

-the environment is VERY different from what you might know from a university.  There are no undergraduates, and very few grad students/other postdocs.  Everything you do that might have been covered by your university department (e.g., phone, photocopying, stationary) is now tied to your supervisor’s research budget.

-talk with your boss ASAP about any travel you want to do; 6 months’ lead-time is not uncommon (especially for international travel).

Being a government postdoc can give you a unique perspective from another side of the research table, and it can be very rewarding.  Just be prepared, because it’s not what you expect.

-Muzzled Postdoc

The empire (seeks funds to) strike back

Rickford_hand

“I find your lack of faith… disturbing.” Greg Rickford, hoping a few bucks might help him learn some Jedi mind tricks to assist with silencing government scientists. And a sweet Halloween costume.vader_choke

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, so I thought you should see it too.

Someone today sent me a recent article by Michael Harris on ipolitics, describing a letter that someone in the constituent offices of Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford, sent to his party faithful. The article (behind a paywall) is here.

The letter (which I was also sent) that Harris writes about says a recent article in the Toronto star suggesting that Rickford might not be the best candidate for his current ministerial position are somehow unfounded (I have my own opinions on the matter), and seeks a fundraising campaign in order to better respond to these attacks (because Greg did such a good job responding himself to the issues of the day, apparently some money is required for assistance on this front). Here’s a copy of said letter, for your viewing pleasure:

Rickford_Raising$ToFightScientists

A letter drafted by someone from the Conservative Party of Canada calling four scientists “radical ideologues” is a piece of comedy that I just couldn’t have come up with myself.

What’s not so funny is the implication of this letter- is the Minister of State for Science and Technology actually building a war chest to attack the scientific community? If so, scientists in Canada might well be worried about what it is Rickford is “quietly and diligently getting done” behind the scenes. Stay tuned…

UPDATE: October 8, 2013

“Federal science minister Greg Rickford not commenting on fundraising letter labelling some scientists ‘radical ideologues’”