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

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.