A survivor’s guide to being a muzzled scientist

I figured it would be a good idea to summarize some of the thoughts I have from having lived through this in the Canadian government to offer some ideas to colleagues in the US who are now entering what seems to be a similar (if not worse) era of limiting communication from government scientists and (possibly?) down-weighting scientific evidence in policy decisions, particularly as they relate to the environment and natural resource extraction. This comes from having worked for the Federal government for 4 years, the last two of which were under a conservative majority government which resulted in deep cuts and heavy top-down control of how things were done and approved. This blog was spawned from my experience cumulatively, but especially in the last two years when it seemed like everyone I knew was being laid off or reassigned and it literally felt like the philosophical foundations of scientific inquiry within the federal government were crumbling. While it wasn’t much fun, I can say I learned a lot from that experience, and hopefully some of what I learned can be used by others who are now going through the same thing.

Feel free to look through the pages of this blog for inspiration- much of it will be specific to the situation we found ourselves in, but other aspects may provide some thoughts as to how to deal with the current situation in the US. Recognizing that not many folks have the time to go reading all my old blog posts, I figured I could summarize some of what I felt were the most important bits from my experience. Keep in mind that I ultimately left the public service, but much of what I have below was a successful survival strategy for me when I had no other options.

With that said, here are my humble suggestions (in no particular order):

1. Get a personal e-mail address, use it on your home computer. Take a page from Hilary; these aren’t state secrets, but it’ll give you the opportunity to communicate with colleagues without having your employer watching your every move. Particularly important if you want to start up your own anonymous blog (like this one used to be), or are taking other actions to try and loop around the restrictions you now find yourself facing.

2. Get anonymous, get online. Twitter, a blog, etc. This is a great way to let people know what’s going on on the inside. Note that it also means that media won’t always be able to carry the stories you post- I had a couple of instances where the editors nixed quotes from me (through anonymous interactions with journalists) because they couldn’t verify my identity, but you have an outlet nonetheless.

3. Involve university collaborators in all your work and publications. Not just because they are colleagues, but because this strategy can ultimately save the communication of your work. This breaks down into several important sub-themes:

A. Communicating your science. Even though you can’t comment on the work, your collaborator can. This is extremely important to ensure you have at the study design stage- in cases in the past where other scientists tried to discuss the findings of Canadian government researchers that were not permitted to comment on their work (e.g., Kristi Miller at DFO), those scientists didn’t always get it right, or communicate the important points. Collaborators can do this effectively.

B. Data availability and sharing. Protect any and all data agreements you have in place, and in all cases ensure that university collaborators have a copy of the datasets.

C. Copyright release. Can’t get approval from your supervisor for copyright release on that paper? One strategy would be to take your name off and let your collaborator submit it, with something like the following in the acknowledgements: “The significant roles of EPA scientists A, B, and C could not be formally recognized through authorship due to their agencies’ denial to sign off on copyright release of this work, and are recognized here.” Ideally this wouldn’t happen, and it might hurt publication records of government scientists during this interim, but it will get the work out there vs. Being denied supervisory sign-off. And presumably granting agencies on the other side of this (should they exist) will accept explanations for publication gaps where this can be recognized in acknowledgements.

4. Recognize that not all of your colleagues will want to do what you are doing. Your neighbour who is supporting 3 young kids on a single income will likely not want to take the risk of rocking the boat. I was in that place for a very long time, until I finally cracked and decided that the voice of my colleagues needed to get out, and I provided that venue and perspective which was to that point missing from the discussion.

5. All of us need to help educate the public on why government science matters and how it’s different from academic funding and projects, as well as the important role of science in informing good and effective policy decisions when it comes to the management of natural resources and the environment. There are plenty more examples out there, we need to make sure people know about them. There are also lots of great ways to analyze data to show where policy decisions that aren’t based on science are demonstrably wrong and unfounded.

6. Get engaged with your union. The public service in Canada is unionized, and the actions taken by the Federal government there under Harper ultimately led to including wording around the communication of science in the most recent round of bargaining. By poking around on the internet, it looks like EPA scientists are represented by the “National Treasury Employees Union”. While it looks like you can’t strike, you can do things like “informational picketing” and other actions. The NTEU has a history of securing change through litigating the federal government- I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this again if it gets really bad.

Hopefully it doesn’t get quite as bad as it did in Canada, where the House of Parliament actually voted against the value of science in policy decisions. And then gave each other high-fives after doing so (seriously).

Don’t forget, we’re all in this together, and it’s up to all of us, no matter what country we are in, to help combat the current war against objectivity. People need a reminder that there’s an important difference between “up” and “down”, even when the President and it’s spokespeople are trying to convince us that down is up, and never mind what anyone else tells you.

Facts, or lies. There is no “alternative”.

I thought I was done with this blog, but a white house press secretary spewing lies that are so easily discredited being defended by Kelly Conway this past weekend just about made me throw up. You can watch the whole disaster of a train-wreck here, and you should, just to appreciate the scope of what the next four years will be like for our southern neighbors and biggest trading partner in Canada.

It’s also worth a reminder that I am a refugee Government Research Scientist (Canadian) from the Harper days- I was lucky enough to find another opportunity and quit while I could, having now moved on to greener pastures (and yes, things are better on the inside now), but when the press secretary under Harper is coming down on you for having lost your credibility, you know it’s bad.

I know this is as crazy to read as it is for me to write it, but to my friends in the US, your government is lying to you. Which is how crack-pot conspiracy theory posts start, but this time it’s verifiably true, the representatives of the government of the United States of America are actually lying to the public. After a single day in office.

There are two responses I’ve seen today from this mess that I’d like to share, both via Phil Plait (@badastronomer; one is his, the other he shared). First is one that not just scientists but EVERYONE needs to keep in mind:

Indeed. We can argue about which policy decision makes the most sense, and have a good, heated debate over how much money we should be spending on this vs. that. But 2 + 2 = 4, not 5. If Sean Spicer and Kelly Conway wants to get up and tell us all that 0 + 2 = 1, as an “alternative fact”, we need everyone, EVERYONE to call this for the bullshit that it is. Otherwise we’re living 1984 in 2014.

The second was this, outlining what looks like facebook post from Dan Rather:

Emphasizing that it’s everyone’s job, including the people in power, to be able to call bullshit when they see it. This is not a small matter.

We all need to be concerned about this- not because anyone really cares how big an inaugural crowd is, but if you’ll lie about that, what will you do when it’s something of actual importance?

In Canada, when the Prime Minister loses the confidence of the House of Commons, we have another election. I don’t know much about how US government works, but I’d say there’s a general lack of confidence in this white house at the moment. Or there should be.

Look, I’m a scientist, and as such somewhat invested in making sure that we can agree on objective truths- there are four oranges in this basket, not five, or three. Because that’s how science works- we can all look at an experiment, or an observation, and repeat it, and say “Yes, I get the same answer”. What I hear now sounds like an attack on objectivism, which is far more dangerous than simply waging war against your government research into climate change. It means you aren’t just willing to deny climate change, but much simpler things like “I see this many people” or “Donald Trump never said that”. Denying the truth moving forward and trying to rewrite history is something I would rather get freaked out about reading dystopian novels, not something I want to encounter in real life for the next four years.

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.

 

Is the government letting the Visiting Fellow program lapse? UPDATE- no, but reviewing it?

[Scroll down for update, 16 Jan 2014]

I recently received a shocking and disturbing e-mail from someone who came across this site. The gist of the e-mail is that this person was going through the Visiting Fellowship application process with NSERC to work in a government lab, but was recently informed by NSERC that:

“…the program has been put on hold until further notice. I have been told by NSERC that the Memorandum of Understanding between NSERC and the government expires at the end of January 2015 and if it’s not renewed, the program will not continue.”

This is the first I’ve heard of this, and a disturbing development if true. I had a VF working with me up until I left the government last year, and there was no indication during that experience that this was coming down the pipe.

Some background for those of you who are asking “What’s a Visiting Fellow”? A Visiting Fellow is a means of government labs hiring people at the Postdoctoral level to conduct research in a government setting. On the government side, it’s a fantastic program, because it attracts strong researchers who are highly motivated to publish, and can help achieve significant progress on a research program.

For the Visiting Fellow, it’s an important option for a postdoctoral position in a depressing landscape of few options. NSERC’s Postdoctoral fellowship program has returned to a success rate of around 20%, similar to what it was prior to 2011, when, due to funding cuts, only 1/2 the number of awards provided in previous years were made available. “Coming back” to 20% success rate hardly seems like it’s something to cheer about, until you look at the numbers and find that the success rate plummeted in the 2011 and 2012 competitions to 9 and 8%, respectively. [Sidebar: It’s worth noting that while the number of awards offered has grown since 2012, the increase in success rate is due largely to a fall in the number of applications- the policy since the 2013 competition is that you can make a single attempt at this award, and if you don’t get it, you can’t re-apply (previous to this you had two attempts); students now wait until they have the strongest possible application to apply, thus the drop in applications. Other postdoctoral funding opportunities can be equally competitive.]

Regardless, the point is that the Visiting Fellowship program is a pretty critical program for both the government labs that they work with and for the Fellows themselves. If the government is trying to quietly let this fade hoping no one will notice, I hope this post circulates enough to ensure that it is indeed noticed. Alternatively, it’s also entirely possible that someone just forgot to file the paperwork at the appropriate time and now the snails pace of the bureaucratic trail of approvals is taking it’s toll on the program being renewed. Either way, I am hopeful that either my colleague was misinformed, and if not, that this post might help speed up the renewal of the agreement for this vital program.

UPDATE 16 Jan 2014

Thanks to NSERC for their comment below, and context from some deeper digging by the lab and field. Their post provides the context for the current situation: not cuts, but rather a labour dispute:  https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/future-of-visiting-fellowship-postdoc-program-in-doubt/

Thanks to everyone for the attention to this- as indicated by Alex, the decision appears to have been poorly communicated and misunderstood by a number of the participating government departments. This is a labour dispute at the heart of the matter, for better or worse. If it leads to the demise of the VF program, it’ll be for the worse.

Negotiate *this*.

Last week, the union that represents government scientists (PIPSC, my former union) tabled a bold negotiating position with Treasury Board (the branch of the government that you negotiate with when you’re a Union), as reported by the Ottawa Citizen. Rather than making it about salary increases, or sick days, as one might have expected, their negotiating position puts the notion of scientific integrity front and centre. My first reaction upon reading a summary of their position was something like “Hell, yes”.

First, some background. Since the last time that they were at the bargaining table, PIPSC has watched this government systematically dismantling and fundamentally restructure the way that scientific departments operate under the federal government. Mandates changed. Facilities closed. Hundreds of millions of dollars in investment in scientific inquiry, gone. Replaced by a focus on participation that directly involves the private sector. NRC shouldn’t do basic research, instead, they should help industry with their R&D. Want to do health research through CIHR? Better find an industry partner. Need to find a home for that 18 million dollar NMR, unique in the world and pushing the boundaries of scientific inquiry? Sorry Bucko, we’ll give you a few months to find a moving truck.

And then there’s all the stuff you don’t see, which I’ve outlined here before: a brutal administrative overload that’s put directly on researchers; additional barriers put in place to make seeking external funding more difficult; a maze of paperwork and approvals to hire even a 4-month summer student; restrictive policies around the approval of scientific publications; an approval process for conference travel that is beyond explanation or justification, the list goes on.

So, perhaps rightly, the union ought to be concerned that scientific integrity is not exactly front of mind for this government. But their move to make it part of the collective agreements is an interesting approach, one that could make it very difficult for future governments to upturn government science programs like we’ve seen since 2010. If it actually gets that far.

There are a few key pillars in what it sounds like the Union is putting forward, based on what’s been published in the Citizen so far:

1. The union has apparently proposed to work with the government to create a “scientific integrity policy” that would help to avoid issues around scientists having to seek departmental approval for the publication of results, or (presumably) being denied access to media to discuss those results. This would include what sounds like a “personal exemption” clause- one that would allow scientists to answer questions “in their personal opinion”, making clear they are not representing the department or the views of the government.

2. There is a proposal to ensure 37.5 hours per year to be dedicated to scientific conferences (public communication of research results), with approvals carried out in a timely and reasonable fashion, and refusals in writing.

3. A proposal to reinvest a portion of revenues from the sale of inventions and intellectual property to be re-invested in research programs. This proposal is fashioned on an incentive program that was in place for years under Treasury Board, but was axed in 2010.

Overall, this is a refreshing approach by the union, one that I suspect is a surprise to Treasury Board who was expecting a fight over sick days and short-term disability, one that (I think) will help cement the support of their membership in negotiations, and one that has the potential to gain significant traction with the Canadian Public as being characterized (accurately, in my opinion) as defending publicly-funded science. I’ve argued myself here that the current government may not take federal science seriously unless faced with some kind of dramatic action by the union; this is an unexpected and refreshing approach.

But I have to toss in my two cents on what I’ve seen so far, having thought about this a lot during the past few years. Overall, I think what’s being put forward sounds reasonable, but I’m not entirely sure where this “personal exemption” thing fits in, or whether it’s the right fit for every department. Frankly, I’d be pretty pleased to see federal scientists just able to speak about their research in the media. I’m even fine with receiving some support from departmental communications folks (I’m sure it’s appreciated in many cases), just not outright denials or being fed “speaking lines”. No federal scientist that I know wants to go out and use their research to speak out against government policy; we all agreed not to do that when we agreed to join the public service and follow our code of Values and Ethics, so I’m not entirely sure what this would be for. Also, the personal exemption clause could open up a can of worms in Canadian departments where the research informing the policy AND the enforcement of those policies are all under the same roof (e.g., Fisheries and Oceans, Environment Canada are two examples; compare that with a case where the roles are separated: Health Canada, which does the research, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which does the enforcement). In some ways, this leads to a larger discussion about how scientific departments are put together in the first place (e.g., maybe enforcement and research shouldn’t be in the same umbrella, as I’ve suggested here), rather than “freedom to communicate” per se.

Also a great proposal for professional development as well. However, I’d add there that “requests need to be answered in a timely fashion”. Better yet, set a deadline. Scientists are asked to submit requests a year in advance; surely with that much lead time, a 4-month turn-around is not so unreasonable to ask. It would save taxpayers a bundle in last-minute flights when approval for meetings is provided a day or two before…

Last, I was never in the business of making things that have market value, but if the government won’t invest in science, at least here’s a proposal to bring some back in. I will observe, however, that directing “income” to a specific program the way things are set up now is near impossible- any money that comes in goes straight to general revenue. There’d need to be substantial changes to the system to accommodate this.

Overall, it’s great to see the union come out with such a strong stand at the bargaining table. It’s hard to tell what the outcome will be, but after being pushed around by the schoolyard bully for years, it looks like PIPSC has had enough and is using their spot at the bargaining table as a means of fighting back. I know that if I was still a member, they’d have my full support. But I can’t help but feel like this is going to be one hell of a fight.

Cue Rocky theme song

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.