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.

 

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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.

Speaking out: some perspective

In a recent post over at desmog Canada, University of Victoria professor and climatologist Andrew Weaver made it clear that he thinks that Federal government scientists should risk their jobs (or what jobs they have left) in order to speak out against the recent federal cuts to environmental science programs that have ended many of the programs (e.g., Contaminants monitoring program, Experimental Lakes Area) that they once worked for. Andrew writes:

“I do not accept that they cannot speak out. I think they need to muster the courage to tell it like it is. There are federal scientists who can tell it like it is. I recognize that there are consequences but you know what? This is a crisis and you can’t rely on a few individuals outside the federal government to speak up.”

As a government scientist myself, while I agree in principle with Weaver, I can’t help but feel like he oversimplifies the issue.

A number of us scientists who have received affected letters (sidebar- for those not in the public service, an affected letter is one that says “your services may no longer be required”; surplus letters- the ones that say “we don’t want you anymore, here are your parting options”, are coming soon, we’re told) all entered the public service within the past 2-5 years. We are the ones that are now trying to figure out what direction to take- we are back on the job market, looking for academic positions or anything else so that we can pay our mortgages and feed our kids.  But we are still paying the mortgage this month because we still work for the government. For us, the risk of speaking out publicly is significant- doing so means losing our houses and who knows what for our families. While Weaver suggests that we should find courage at the defense of our union (PIPSC), they can’t really do anything to save us if we break the so-called “Values and Ethics code”, a condition of employment which we agreed to follow when we signed up for this job, for better or worse (and which we have been reminded of by our superiors on a frequent basis since these cuts began trickling down from above).

In contrast to my own position, a number of more senior folks already have academic positions lined up at various institutions in Canada, or have already left and are employed elsewhere. These are the people that, I would hope, like Andrew has said, would be among those now making their voices heard. So why don’t we hear them speaking out? Good question. In part, I think it’s frustration working for a government that year after year has cut budgets, making it clear they don’t value the work you do, leaving us to seek external funds and get creative to make our science move forward- science that they ultimately used anyway to guide policy and inform government. After being cut, I think some have just stopped caring. Others, I suspect, are waiting out their time to get their “transition packages”- up to a year of salary plus severance- before they take up their academic positions. Will we hear from them then? One can hope.

And then there are the brave, who are speaking out- Peter Ross, who has made at least two public statements (here and here) against the cuts to his program and to federal science. I have no idea if he’s suffered from these statements, but he is certainly among the few who have found the courage to speak out publicly. Others have found other ways- working in the background, helping with events around groups like the Coalition to Save ELA, the death of evidence rally on Parliament hill last summer, and letters issued by scientific societies around the world. All of which they could be fired for.

As for myself, I am interviewing for academic positions, and trying to find something that will allow me to continue to pay the bills. It is easy for someone who has tenure to tell the guy who has everything to lose that he should speak up. If Andrew would like to ask the University of Victoria to find us all alternative employment, I’ll be right there with him. Perhaps if and when he gets to Parliament Hill (running as a Provincial Green candidate now, down the road…?) he can help bring science back to the forefront, and make clear the importance of giving our government scientists the ability to communicate their research publicly. Until I have my job offer elsewhere, I’ll have to keep my objections anonymous.

And to be clear, I do object to the direction the government is going- I fully agree that there is a type of science- e.g., long-term monitoring- that only governments can really do well. The timelines are too long to be realistically supported by funding agencies that work on 5 year timelines or less, and we have nothing in Canada like the LTER program run by the NSF in the US. It appears some monitoring will continue- recent publications out by Environment Canada employees (with John Smol at Queen’s University) highlights recent work that is showing an ongoing role for government science in environmental regulation. However, this recent round of cuts- particularly within DFO of both the contaminants program and the Experimental Lakes Area– remove parts of that organization which, due to mandate changes many years ago, always had a difficult time justifying their existence within a branch of government that always argued that contaminants and water quality was someone else’s problem. This is DESPITE the importance of the work done by both groups. Whether these programs would have fared better under another department (Environment Canada for instance) is a bit of a moot point now.

Until I have my back-up in place, and feel like I can speak freely (and not behind the anonymous blog) I will have to hope that my colleagues that have managed to find themselves alternative gainful employment will take up the call on behalf of the rest of us, and join the objections that our colleagues in academics have made so clearly.