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


50 shades of muzzle: Part 1- Funding.

Much has been made over the past while about how we government scientists are kept under wraps from talking to regular folks via the media. The most notable (recent) cases are Kristi Miller, a government scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, there are more frequent (and more subtle) forms of suppression that occur on a regular basis, that in many cases prevent the science from being done in the first place. I thought it would be illustrative to outline some of them here. I’ve tried to think about where in each step of the scientific process, from an idea, to the execution of a project and ultimately, to the communication of that work at conferences, scientific journals and the media that our work suffers as a result of the bureaucratic oversight we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

As I started writing this post, it became clear this will require at least a couple of entries to get through all the issues. So we’ll start with this one on the early stages of doing government science- like everything, it all starts with money.

1. Funding, funding, funding…

Any research scientist will tell you that the rubber hits the road with a line on funding- it’s very difficult to conduct science without some kind of money coming in to support the research- graduate students need paychecks, there’s lab equipment, disposables, field work (which can be brutally expensive depending on where you go- it’s not cheap to get to Ellesmere Island)- basically everything that costs money besides perhaps the salary of the scientist doing the work.

Clearly this is not a unique hurdle for government scientists. However, there are aspects about how we get our funding that are. There is perhaps an illusion that government scientists have a “budget” with which to conduct the research the government wants us to do. Not so. The only funding I can count on every year is $1500. To be clear, one thousand, five hundred dollars. That will pay a summer student for a month, and maybe some pens and paper for the office. Heaven help me if we need to repair field or lab equipment, or buy a new rainsuit. Clearly, this annual allowance not going to answer the major research questions the department needs answering, or the work that I as a scientist am interested in conducting.

So, we are asked to apply for internal competitive funds. Often, this funding is doled out in 1-year increments, making any long-term planning extremely difficult to do. Occasionally there’s multi-year funding pots available, but they are few and far between, and in the interest of regional fairness, any internal source of money that sounds reasonable at first glance often get diluted down between multiple regions, so you might get a fraction of what you ask for. But, some funding is better than no funding.

Okay, so I’ve got my $1500, maybe some internal funding. Oh wait- my manager just took 10% of those internal funds as overhead (that’s right, we are forced to use INTERNAL research dollars for administrative costs; apparently we have a very expensive photocopier, because I buy all my own pens and paper).

No matter, let’s try and use the money I do have as leverage to get some real work done, and look to outside funding sources. This can come from a number of places; NSERC discovery grants (but only if you’re an adjunct professor at a Canadian University, which I found out from personal experience is not all that simple or straightforward- more on that in another post); multi-year strategic grants through NSERC (if you can find a university faculty member to lead it; adjunct prof’s and government scientists can’t be the principal investigator on strategic grants); there’s provincial governments, funding through other federal departments, international organizations, etc. In short, many of the same places academic scientists can turn for funding. Should be no problem for an ambitious scientist, right?

Yes, but- this begs the question- shouldn’t government science departments be supporting the work that it’s scientists do? If you want your scientists doing work that fits your “departmental mandate”, shouldn’t you give them the money to support research in those directions? Apparently not- they expect you to find the money to do research that fits their priorities.

Let’s put that issue aside for the moment- no government has unlimited funds, so maybe seeking external funding for government-mandated work is justifiable. External funding often comes directed towards specific problems or issues; it just means we need to find the money pots that are aligned with our departmental “mandates”, or aligned closely enough. Until very recently, that call was up to us (the scientists). Unfortunately, new rules about what we’re even allowed to apply for in the first place may make this game even more difficult.

To get money into the department to do our work, we sign (and enter) “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs) and “collaborative agreements” (CAs)- contracts that say what the money is for, how much we get, and for how long. The new and somewhat disturbing rules around these contracts say that we need to seek departmental approval BEFORE we even submit a proposal. That’s right- not once we find out we have actual money to support the work, but before we even apply for it. AND we need to seek approval 3-months prior to even submitting the proposal. If the work that you are even planning on applying for (or working with a collaborator on) is deemed for whatever reason not in the interests of the approving manager, it’s dead in the water. You can’t even take the step of asking for the money to do the work you want to do, or leave it up to peer-review if the proposed work is of scientific merit or provides information on a key topic of interest- if the manager doesn’t like it, then it’s back to trying to piece together your research program with your $1500.

A potentially bigger issue with the rule changes around external funding is the new rule that “Expenditures cannot be incurred before the funds are received in the region“. Translation- you can’t spend the money before you have it. This might seem reasonable, until you find out how long the signing of CAs and MOUs normally take. A common timeline looks something like this: You submit your MOU in April for the work you want to do in July, and by the time it goes from you up the chain to whomever needs to sign it (on both ends), you see the money sometime in November. This latest rule might very simply put an end to government-led arctic research as we know it. Arctic field research is expensive, and often only takes place over a very brief window in the summer when weather allows. The money to fund that work is almost never in place when it’s time to head into the field. If you can’t do the work till the money is in hand, then it won’t get done; to say that field work in the arctic would be difficult to carry out in November would be an understatement.

“But why can’t you just use the money from this year for next year’s field campaign?” you might ask. The reason is because it’s the government. Our fiscal year end is March 31st, which means whatever money for the year isn’t spent by then either needs to be returned to external funders or gets absorbed back into general revenue.

With the system that’s been in place before these rules, we’ve been able to manage to do some decent work as government scientists, thanks primarily to the existence of external funding. But with these new changes, it may be a long time coming before you hear of any real government science taking place.