Unmuzzle the scientists? Yes, please.

Never one to shy away from being provocative, Andrew Leach wrote an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine about why we as a society should be okay with our federal government being in control of the messaging of the research performed by it’s public servant scientists. In it, he envisions government scientists waving the flag of their evidence-based discoveries against all other considerations for informing policy, because, surely, they must think this is the only thing worth considering.

Perhaps to suit the tone of the article, Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely. To be fair, his main premise is: should government researchers be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers?

In many ways, this point is moot from the start. See the Values and Ethics code we all signed when we started our jobs with the federal public service. Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government. To do so would be grounds for dismissal. But why not let them talk about their studies and results, without the policy-related questions? People do it all the time in interviews, including academics- just listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC- few scientists are tromping out the “what we should be doing”, the vast majority are just really excited about the work they’ve done. E.g., state the facts, and conclusions, in an unbiased fashion, as we’d all like to do, and have the capacity to inform the public about our science. Over twitter, Andrew suggests that having their papers read by other scientists should be enough, but even he can appreciate the added buzz that goes along with articles when it ends up in the public discussion- he writes for Maclean’s, after all!

Returning to Andrew’s point in the article, to suggest that scientists think that their evidence should be considered above all else with regards to forming public policy (or, as Andrew puts it, “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”),
pays little credit to the intelligent folks that are employed as government scientists. Having recently been one, we are all keenly aware of all the other issues at play in shaping good public policy, and that the scientific evidence under consideration (be it health impacts, environmental impacts, discoveries of other scientific importance) is only one part of the equation. An article that I’ve pointed to many times here by Jake Rice, Senior Scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, would seem to demonstrate that we are keenly aware of the nature of science and scientific evidence in informing public policy, and the need to keep that science free of bias such that it receives proper weighting at the policy table. That is NOT to say that it’s the only thing to consider, but when folks look back 30 years later on the cod stocks of Newfoundland, we can clearly evaluate what happens when policy makers place emphasis on short-term economic gains in the face of longer-term ecological (and ultimately, economic) stability.

In many ways, NOT letting government scientists do the talking is backfiring for the government, and badly. My strategy before leaving the public service was to make sure that I had university co-authors on any paper I published, to make sure that someone would be able to discuss the results. However, as Andrew pointed out in his article, university researchers are not as bound as the government’s own scientists with regards to what they can say. Take, for example, the recent PR disaster facing Environment Canada and NRC over John Smol, and the government research paper that he was involved in. Do you think that, were the lead government scientists permitted to discuss their research, that they would have had the same messaging as Smol? No way. Government scientists are bound by their Values and Ethics code of conduct, and are repeatedly reminded of it. Give them a chance to show that they know how to conduct good science, and can communicate it, too, without getting fired or going through the 7 circles of administrivia to get permission to talk about it.

As Andrew says, “If you want to take the muzzle off government researchers, that’s fine if you want it for the right reasons. I’m all in favour of increasing the quality of information available both to our decision-makers and to the general public.” Hear hear. So why inflame the discussion by suggesting that the issue of muzzling is about something that it’s not?

I also agree with Andrew that there is a strong role for Government science, both with regards to the science one can do under it (as opposed to under academic science), and with the spot it gives you at the table when it comes to forming policy- that’s outlined in an early post over here. Ironically, though, since internal science capacity is so strapped with all the recent cuts to federal research departments, it’s groups like the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society that are in talks with the government now, keen to fill the holes that have been left. It seems that when you kick the scientists out of government, they get jobs in academia, and still try to give you the advice you employed them for in the first place.

And PS, Andrew, not all of us wear lab coats; something I am sure he is keenly aware of being a colleague of David Schindler. I tried my best to find the stereotype of economists, but I hate to say they weren’t terribly flattering. Of course, I don’t suggest nor have any reason to believe that these apply to Andrew, but that’s what you get with stereotypes in public writing. Andrew is a great writer, and has a lot of insightful things to say in his articles, but I feel like this one misses the mark entirely.

 

Returning the shout-out

Holy carp! I just got a shout out to this blog from Dr. David Schindler in his recent op-ed found in the Royal Society of Canada spring 2014 update. What a pleasure to know he’s among the readers of this site. It’s only fair that I return the favour, you can read his discussion piece here:

https://rsc-src.ca/en/about-us/our-academies/academy-science/spring-2014-update#Schindler

In a nutshell, Schindler discusses the recent events around the Experimental Lakes Area within the context of the general decline of federal science (and democracy in Canada) under the current government. It’s well worth the read. Among my favourite passages is this:

“As F.R. Hayes, the Chairman of the now-defunct Fisheries Research Board of Canada, astutely predicted in his book on the history of the FRBC, The Chaining of Prometheus, managers in the civil service “will slyly slip sawdust into the oats of the research donkey until the animal becomes moribund.” As described below, under the Harper Government, the diet of DFO’s current research donkey appears to contain no oats whatsoever. It is high time that research to underpin environmental policy is once again done at arms-length from the political process, as it was under the Fisheries Research Board.”

Hear hear.

The other strategy that seems fully rampant under the current leadership is to keep the donkey tied to a post and walking in circles so that he can’t get at the oats (or sawdust) at all- filling out endless reams of paperwork and watching it creep it’s way through the administratosphere for approval to perform seemingly simple tasks, like seeking travel approval, requesting library books, trying to staff positions, publication approval… issues that are also well summarized by a recent anonymous comment on this blog.

 

 

Why does government science matter?

Given that most of what I’ve put up here so far has been criticism of the way things are done currently with respect to Government-based science in Canada, I figured it was time to do a post to make clear that I think Government-based science IS important, and CAN and SHOULD be used to meaningfully inform government policy. I think this is what we’d all like the situation to be like. It’s what I felt I was getting into when I took this job instead of pursuing a career in academics. My concern after being here for as long as I have is that the system has drifted far from the ideal situation. My sincere hope is that what I put on this site might ultimately be used to FIX the system and bring things back from the brink to a point at which we can have faith in the system once more. Not that I really think anyone in government is looking to this site for advice, but rather, if the issues raised here are raised elsewhere- by staff in division meetings, at town-halls with the Regional Directors and ADMs; but also publicly in the media, and more broadly in the public conscience- then people might start to wonder if there might be a better way of doing things than the current mode of operations. I firmly believe that the way things are and the way they are going, the current model is unsustainable and (whether intentionally or not) set up to self-destruct.

Government Science CAN and SHOULD inform policy

One of the biggest strengths of government-based science, in my mind anyway, is that it has the capacity to answer very pressing questions quickly and effectively. One of the best environmental examples I can think of in this regard is the work that brought the Experimental Lakes Area into existence, and outlined eloquently by Dr. David Schindler at the University of Alberta in his Killam lecture in 2008. For those unfamiliar with the story, when Lake Erie was a eutrophic mess back in the 60’s, full of stinking algae and dead fish forever washing up on shores and the lake being described as “dead” in the media, the Canadian government tasked Jack Vallantyne with solving the problem. His answer was to establish the Experimental Lakes Area and poach David Schindler from Trent University to lead the program. The way David describes the connection between the work done at ELA and the way that work was communicated as advice up through the International Joint Commission (the intergovernmental body charged with managing the Great Lakes), ultimately leading to reductions in phosphate release into the lakes is, well, inspiring.

What’s interesting about the rest of David’s speech from that point on (read it at the link above- it’s worth it) is that it describes where things went wrong, which in short order gets us where we are today, with many of the same problems persisting.

But somehow, despite all that, policy-shaping work continues to be done by government scientists, pulled together because of the ingenuity and determination of individuals to identify problems, seek out external funding and do the critical science to inform policy makers. It’s even more disheartening to then have the department and the minister take credit for the work as being “forward-thinking”, when in reality you had to fight tooth and nail to get anything done in the first place.

Why can’t academics do the work? Why have government science programs at all?

Short answer: time and money. Government science programs can have more dedicated staff to do the work, frequently more resources for capitol investment (boats, vessels, facilities, etc), and ultimately, pretty deep pockets if the project in question is recognized as a legitimate priority. Much more so than would be allocated to the typical academic grant in Canada. Traditionally in government science, one could maintain long-term project funding for much longer than under typical academic funding cycles (5 years at best, fewer more common). This permits a focus on directed questions over that long term vs. having to change direction in research questions every 5 years with whatever issue has become cosmopolitan in funding circles.

But again, this seems to be exactly the direction things are going. Within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the nation-wide contaminants program led by leading research scientists in the field that was axed has been replaced by a 5-person “advisory group”. A major part of the responsibilities of this group will be to allocate funding to academic researchers to evaluate topics around contaminants of concern. One has to wonder how many orders of magnitude less the scope of the work funded through the advisory program will be compared to the program that was in place before the cuts.

Monitoring

It is very difficult for academics to conduct large-scale environmental monitoring programs over the long-term (but see sidebar below). In academics, the necessary infrastructure (and maintenance of that infrastructure over decades) is lacking, staff (e.g., postdocs and graduate stuents) have frequent turnover rates and a diversity of interests themselves, funding sources/priorities that are alligned to monitoring are rare if not nonexistent in Canada, and efforts are further hindered by the movement of researchers from one institution to another. Many monitoring programs which have been government-based in the past now find themselves with highly valuable datasets with which to investigate questions regarding climate change and effects on organisms, ecosystems, contaminant transport. There is a special brand of irony that many of the same programs that collected these valuable data and have the expertise to now answer these important questions are the very ones now being cut by federal departments, despite stated departmental needs for science advice on long-term processes like climate change.

Worse yet, this particular government seems to be arguing that  proponents for development (translation: developers, e.g., mining companies, etc.) should actually be the ones leading for and paying for monitoring programs, not the government. That’s crazy. Monitoring programs need to be well-thought out, and have consistency through time. If you look at what proponents have over the long-term, that’s not what you find. More typically, it’s whatever the lowest-bidding consultant group tells you what you need to know, and spews back at you every 2-3 years and which is nothing like the methods used by the last group they were using, and the datasets aren’t comparable. Though not out yet, let’s hope that the oilsands monitoring program that is soon to come out actually takes into account the scientific advice in design that they’ve been given, and that they don’t just pull the plug on it if the results begin to tell them something the funder (industry) doesn’t want to hear. And, let’s not forget that the only reason this monitoring program was overhauled was because Schindler’s group exposed the previous program as sadly insufficient.

So yes, there is value to government science, and there are reasons we should be doing it. Government science is focused on the priorities of the day. Intrinsically, this is not a bad thing. But if the priorities of the day are actually not doing science, then there’s a problem. With this particular group in charge, the priority seems to be with facilitating development, and worry about the consequences later, rather than have any unbiased assessment of our understanding of ecosystems meaningfully inform responsible development.

Sidebar: You can have long-term monitoring in Canadian academics, but more frequently, it’s tracking a particular population as opposed to a broader ecosystem approach like those adopted by past government programs evaluating contaminants and whole-ecosystem changes. Some examples that come to mind are the folks that have been working on small mammals for their whole careers: Stan Boutin, Jack Millar come to mind (Though I don’t know what the federal cuts to Kulane will mean to Stan’s group or the research they do up there). Retirement can pose a problem if someone isn’t there who finds your study system interesting; again, there are exceptions. Case in point, Jan Murie studied Columbian ground squirrels in Alberta for a large part of his career. Though he has retired, Jeff Lane appears to have taken over the work on these populations in the Kananaskis hills of Alberta (in large part apparently by recruiting volunteer field assistants– trust me- if you’ve ever spent any time in the sheep river valley, it would be a pretty amazing volunteer opportunity as the surroundings make it worth the visit), and with some interesting results, based on their recent paper in Nature.