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 ūüėČ

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 ‚Äúremove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.‚ÄĚ

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.

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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.

It came from the Blogosphere

While I must apologize for my lack of blog activity this past while, I am happy that others are more active than I, and would like to take a moment to highlight some recent doozies to which I spent most of the time nodding in agreement whilst reading. I thought it would be worth sharing a few of these posts.

1. In response to the Government’s recent call for consultation on it’s Science and Innovation Strategy, a number of people have made some excellent responses and have posted them. Not suprisingly, few seem to think that the government’s proposal is on the right track. Some posts that I’d recommend reading are below:

A thoughtful response from Evidence for Democracy

An aptly titled response: Seizing Canada’s Scientists by Graham Larkin

Another great response from Iva Cheung

2. A damning list (prompted by the recent changes to the elections act, which are frankly quite scary) of the continuing ways in which the current government continues to change the shape of our current democracy, by Sarah Boon, I want my Canada back. I don’t think Sarah is alone on this one.

If you haven’t already, please take a second to see what these folks have to say.

This, Canada, is your new Minister of State for Science

cbcstandupforscience

Today, Canadian scientists and those who support science and access to the researchers they fund hit the streets in at least 17 Canadian cities, and Stood up for Science. The event got great media coverage, and was a very active topic on social media throughout the day, trending on twitter in a number of major Canadian cities, and across the country:

Predictably, the government put forward a few folks to speak to what great support they provide to the scientific community. Importantly, Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, gave a telling interview on Ottawa’s CBC radio morning. It’s here, and definitely worth a listen:

http://www.cbc.ca/player/AudioMobile/Ottawa%2BMorning/ID/2406516576/

I thought, “Great- what a fantastic opportunity for a preview of how our new Minister of State for Science and Technology will deal with these very important issues.”

Greg Rickford

This Minister of Science and Technology, like his Government’s policies limiting the abilities of its scientists to do their jobs, is for the dogs.

In his interview, my impression was that Greg Rickford came off as defensive and arrogant, refusing to answer the interviewer on a few points, speaking over her throughout and talking to her like she’s a child in a kindergarten class at one point. The interviewer maintained her professionalism throughout.

More disturbing than his poor manners was what Rickford actually says in the interview. A few bits are worth highlighting here, but again, I would encourage you to listen to the interview yourself.

1. 9:35. Greg Rickford agrees that the government has directed it’s research towards applied science. I don’t think anyone is disputing this, and I don’t think that applied science is a bad thing- it’s typically been the focus of what most government departments have in the past done (with the possible exception of NRC before the current government started making changes to that department). The problem is that not all science (even applied science) results in a gidget that you can sell. Lots of applied science is used to figure out the ways in which the workings of nature affect human populations, and that information is used to inform government policy on, say, what the cause of algal blooms in lakes is (based on government science). Or the reason that people’s children are suffering from mercury poisoning (based on research here by a Canadian PhD student). You can’t sell that, but ask people how much they value clean water and fish that won’t make them sick- probably ranks up there with the value of any gidget you might be able to market. Not only that, but these discoveries have saved governments around the world untold billions of dollars in health spending and environmental costs. Notably, the above examples are both applied science, but it’s science that the government no longer funds, after cutting funding to the Experimental Lakes Area and cutting the contaminants research program from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

2. Rickford seems happy to admit there are significant constraints on the means by which government scientists are restricted in the communication of their findings. A: 12:15: “Scientists are aware of what they should and shouldn’t be disclosing”- so it’s clear there are things we are being asked *not* to disclose when it comes to communicating our research. Glad that’s out in the open.

3. 13:43. When asked about the thousands of opportunities every year that government scientists have had to communicate their work through the scientific papers they publish, Rickford clarifies: “Publications are not press conferences… that’s not a telephone interview.” So true, Greg, and that’s a major part of the problem. The general public aren’t reading scientific papers, they listen to the news. So how do you get that government science to the people? According to Rickford, we give them our scientific papers. As Rickford asks the interviewer, with all that scientific publishing,11:56,¬† “How much freer (sic) could you be?” Free enough not to have had every media request I’ve ever had flatly denied by the communications department- I’d like to be more freer than that, Greg.

4. 14:09- the interviewer asks if government science publications are “censored” or edited by government departments. She’s likely referring to the publication rules like the ones I have to go through in my department, where a manager who’s not been involved in the work has the power not to sign the copyright release on a paper (and therefore keep it from being published) if they don’t like what it says. And here’s the most telling quote of the piece: “Scientists work for governments, universities and private institutions. Would you expect that anything that they did in terms of publications wouldn’t be guided in some way by some overarching policy of their respective employer? That would be true of universities, I would suspect, and it would be true of scientists working in the private sector”.

Greg, you suspect wrong. Unlike the private sector, No university I have ever been at vets the publications of its professors and students for “appropriate messaging” like your government does.

So there you have it- this is the guy running the show for Science and Technology in Canada for the next two years (at least). In the humble opinion of this scientist, the need for Canadians to Stand Up for Science is more apparent than ever.

Stand up for Science

The folks over at Evidence for Democracy (E4D, their clever acronym) have been busy over the summer. These are the same people that brought you the “Death of Evidence” rally last summer.

On September 16th, they are organizing rallies across the country to “Stand Up for Science“. Because this rally is right across the country, not just in Ottawa like Death of Evidence was, it has the potential to be quite huge. Perhaps we’ll even see a few muzzled scientists out and about at these events.

I tip my hat to Katie Gibbs and the whole E4D crew for keeping up the momentum around this issue.

The official announcement from E4D is below:

Fed up with the erosion of science in Canada? Want our government to support science in the public interest? Think that decisions should be based on evidence and facts instead of ideology? Join us on September 16th to Stand up for Science!

It’s time to stand up for science in the public interest in Canada. In recent years we have seen cuts to many important scientific institutions, science funding has shifted focus towards the commercialization of research, and government scientists have lost the ability to communicate their research to the public.

Science matters to Canadians. Good science, when coupled with good decision-making, keeps our water and air clean, keeps us healthy, keeps our food safe and prepares Canada for the future. Science in the public interest is crucial for our well-being and long-term prosperity.

To make the public aware of this, and to call on the Federal government to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest, we are organizing ‚ÄėStand Up for Science‚Äô rallies across the country on September 16th 2013.

It’s your future Рmake it your science.

What: Stand Up for Science rally

When: September 16, noon-1pm

Where: Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Notes: All are invited. Please bring a lab coat or other science paraphernalia if you have them and signs (the nerdier the better!)

RSVP on our website www.evidencefordemocracy.ca or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/639576056054837/

We need your help to make this event a success. The Death of Evidence rally last July had a huge impact. We want to put these issues back in the public eye and let our government know that we demand better science policies. To accomplish this, we need a big turnout at the rallies. Please come to a rally near you, and make sure to share this information with your friends and colleagues.

We will be calling on the Federal government to make a strong commitment to science in the public interest by:

(1)   Funding scientific research from basic science through to applied.

(2)   Using the best available science and evidence to make the best decisions.

(3)   Supporting the open communication of publicly funded science to the public, unless there are demonstrably good reasons for not doing so.