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.


Muzzled science on a Sunday

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

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

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

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


Is the government breaking the law?


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

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

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

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

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

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