Silence of the science

cropped-hannibal-lecter-front-page3.jpg

A couple of articles have come out recently that I absolutely felt the need to share- anyone reading this blog has probably already seen them, but I figured I’d better highlight them just in case.

The first is a series of articles coming out of the Huffington Post, collectively called “stifling science” by Melissa Mancini. It’s very well-researched and hits all the major points on the issues.

The central page is not that simple to navigate to find parts 1-4, so I’ve summarized them here:

Part 1: A Cry for science in Canada

Part 2: How science stopped at the top of the world

Part 3: How Tories control the science message

Part 4: Science Cuts: Ottawa Views Pure Science As ‘Cash Cow,’ Critics Say

One line in part 3 really caught my eye:

“The Department of Fisheries and Oceans put out 128 news releases in 2012, compared with 243 in 2005, a decrease of 47 per cent.”

Pretty brutal. To be fair, perhaps we should know what the stats are in the intervening years and whether 2005 is consistent with previous years under the Liberal government- however, the consistency with the patterns between DFO and the other three science-based departments suggests this is not some artefact of a difference between two randomly selected years; rather, it would appear that access to federal scientists has become more restrictive under the current ruling party.

The second is an article by Jonathon Gatehouse in Maclean’s magazine, entitled “When science goes silent“. I particularly liked the following passage:

“To call the current environment ‘dysfunctional’ would not be overstating things,” one federal scientist, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, told Maclean’s. “Your bosses are only ever following marching orders, so people are made to feel that there’s no use in complaining because we are so far away from the level at which decisions are made that there’s no hope our concerns will ever make it anywhere.”

Okay, that’s not (by far) the best quote in the piece, but let’s just say I’m partial to it.

The article is very comprehensive, and very much worth the read.

It would seem that Suzanne Legault will have her hands full over the next few months; I look very much forward to her findings.

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Canadian Government votes against… Science

Our fearless leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, voting "No" to science in this country.

Our fearless leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, voting “No” to science in this country.

It’s one of those things that you wish you hadn’t seen- like a terrible car crash that you drive past.

Today, our members of parliament debated a motion put forward by NDP Science and Technology critic, Kennedy Stewart. The motion reads as follows:

That, in the opinion of the House,

a) public science, basic research, and the free and open exchange of scientific information are essential to evidence-based policy-making;

b) federal government scientists must be enabled to discuss openly their findings with their colleagues and the public;

c) the government should maintain support for its basic scientific capacity across Canada, including immediately extending funding, until a new operator is found, to the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area Research Facility to pursue its unique research program.

The governing conservative party cheered as they defeated the motion, 157 against to 137 for. That’s right- a majority of our parliamentarians, every single one of them conservative, voted against this motion. Want to see how your MP voted? You can find out here. Maybe they would like to explain to you why they voted the way they did.

So let’s review exactly what it is that our government does not support.

A. They do NOT support scientific evidence to inform government policy. Perhaps not surprising, seeing as how the recent changes to environmental legislation in this country were clearly made without seeking out scientific advice.

B. They do NOT support federal government scientists (people like me) discussing our scientific research with the public or our colleagues. We’re already forced to go through enourmous rigamarole (I believe that’s the technical term) to talk to the media, or present our work at a scientific conference. Clearly, that wasn’t enough, so they made publishing our scientific work more difficult: we now need to seek approval from a Division Manager to first submit the paper, as well as to sign off on copyright release.

C. This is a bit of a two-parter. First, they do NOT believe in maintaining support for basic scientific capacity across Canada. All government departments have seen a reduction in their science capacity with the cutbacks that have rolled out over the past two years, though the government still hasn’t admitted it publicly. Gary Goodyear claims that investments in science and technology have increased over their time in power, but there seems to be some debate about those numbers. According to Kennedy Stewart, Stats Canada numbers that suggest that investment in Science and Technology has actually fallen by about 1 Billion dollars annually since the 2010-2011 fiscal year (I’d love to post the numbers if Kennedy reads this and can point me to them- I can be reached on my comment page).

The second part, is that the government does NOT support extending funding for the Experimental Lakes Area until a new operator has been found. Again, not surprising, given that they started tearing cabins apart last week and informed non-government scientists this week that they would not be allowed on-site to conduct their research– federally funded research.

This government says it invests in science, but makes it crystal clear in its actions that it’s not the least bit concerned with it. As they say, actions speak louder than words.

UPDATE (21 March 2013): In response to Burinsmith and Ivankaram that my title is over the top… it’s based on the picture. The topic of the vote, according to CPAC which broadcast it yesterday, was “Science”. The following tweet inspired the post:tim_chu

I was always told, even in the science world, that you want a catchy title. Looks like I’m getting alot of traffic on this post, from folks with a variety of viewpoints. Hopefully my post can contribute to constructive discussions around the issue outside of my choice of title.

Muzzled science on a Sunday

I thought this was too good to pass up. A great spot on the muzzling of government scientists today on the Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, which you can listen to here. Speaking with Michael is Gordon McBean (pron. “McBain”), a climate researcher at the University of Western Ontario, president-elect for the International Council of Science, and former Assistant Deputy Minister of Environment Canada, 1994-2000.

I especially like the reference in the intro to Kelly Leitch’s defense of the government position, which she stumbled all over on Power and Politics last week, just saying the same speaking points over, and over, and over (as Rick Mercer recently pointed out, it’s not just us scientists that are muzzled). Kelly’s inadequate response can be found here. She says that publication is the way to go (despite the fact that even that’s now in jeopardy given new rules that make my Division Manager, not me, the person responsible for reviewing and signing off on copyright transfer on publications).

McBean makes the point crystal clear: publication isn’t enough. To really be able to communicate science to the public, it requires speaking, in plain language, the research that is being done. It’s this that so rarely happens now.

The topic eventually swings around to the potential “politicization of science” as a consequence of scientists speaking about their research. I think it’s important to point out that this swings both ways- e.g., by limiting communication and directing topics of investigation, the government is helping contribute to policy-driven science, not scientifically-based policy decisions. There’s a big difference, which I’m working on hashing out for a future post.

 

Office of Scientific Freedom

I received a comment from a reader today. Among their words of support was a link to this political cartoon:

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Thanks to Osmia for the link, and to Greg Perry for the cartoon.

Rick Mercer has also recently helped bring some of these issues more into the mainstream with his rant this week:

Thanks Rick. Rick also makes the point that it’s not just scientists receiving this treatment, but basically everyone under the Prime Minister’s Office. However, I see a bigger problem with limiting the ability of scientists to speak and report on their objective findings vs. limiting access to government ministers. The science produced by government scientists is paid for (in part) by the Canadian taxpayer, and they should be able to access the products of that work, in a manner that’s accessible. In a recent interview with As It Happens, Assistant Deputy Minister Kevin Stringer indicated that allowing government scientists to publish their scientific papers is the most appropriate way to access that science (but see my post here on how even publication of scientific findings may be in jeopardy). Pointing the public to scientific papers isn’t the answer; providing scientists the opportunity to explain their research via the media is a far more effective mechanism for getting the major points across. Stringer was quick to point out that DFO has provided all kinds of interviews in the past. So why hasn’t Kristi Miller ever been able to speak to the media about her paper published in Science on salmon viruses?

Until things change, it will be taxpayer money in, but nothing back to taxpayers to show them they are getting their money’s worth. Is the future of government science being sabotaged from above? The contaminants program that was axed by DFO has been replaced by an advisory group that will fund external researchers to do the work DFO scientists used to do. Maybe this is where things are headed generally.

50 shades of muzzle part 3- conference approval DENIED

One of the main venues that scientists have for reporting their findings to the scientific community is through scientific conferences. As a graduate student, I attended 2-4 scientific conferences a year. This provided an impetus to get some stuff done so I would have something to present, as well as provide many, many MANY opportunities (often unforeseen) in order to gain constructive feedback on the work I had presented, and an opportunity to meet collaborators for additional work.

Then, I became a government scientist. I looked with anticipation to a meeting only 3 months away, which I very much looked forward to attending. When I mentioned it to my colleagues, they laughed. “You want to go to a conference that’s only 3 months away? You should have put that in a year ago!!!” Understandably, I was confused, as I’d only just joined the public service.

However, this is the way it works. In September 2013, we science staff were asked to provide all meetings we anticipated attending for all of 2014. A FULL YEAR OR MORE IN ADVANCE. This seems strange, particularly to government scientists, since we are being asked to identify conferences we wish to attend when conference dates are typically only tentatively announced, AND, we are being asked to forecast expenditures (e.g., associated with conference travel and registration) into a future fiscal year when we don’t even know if we’ll have the money available to attend, since the government is so keen on keeping us funded on a year-to-year basis.

Okay, planning ahead is a good thing, right? You think this would mean that we’d find out we’re eligible to attend well in advance, so we can get the early registration fee, saving the taxpayer $100 to $200 dollars, and get our accommodation booked early, ensuring additional savings. Right? WRONG. Typically, we’re lucky if we find out 1-2 weeks before the conference if we’re approved to go. That means we pay premiums on airfare, because we have to book through a centralized system and therefore pay top-dollar for booking flights 1-2 weeks away, we scramble to find accommodation, and we sigh in relief that the registration we’ve already paid will be reimbursed because otherwise our abstract would have been denied.

Worse yet, this has NOTHING to do with whether you have the money to attend or not. I’ve been in the situation where I’ve had external funding to send me to a conference all lined up, and been denied (with no explanation), and similarly, been approved to attend a conference for which I have no funding to attend (because I had to ask for it 1.5 years in advance, and could not secure funds for the meeting).

So, our bosses ask for 1 to 1.5 years advance notice for meetings, and we’re told 1-2 weeks in advance of the conference if we can attend or not, REGARDLESS of whether we have funding to go or not. We cost the taxpayer a premium in travel costs because of this ENTIRELY bureaucratic delay. AND, it’s yet another example of how our Canadian government keeps the science that we do suppressed from both the scientific community and the general public. Don’t like the message in that abstract that was sent for approval? DENY PERMISSION TO ATTEND. Or, grant them permission, knowing full well they have no funding to attend, because you DENIED PERMISSION for applying to certain external grants.

Even worse, you get granted permission to attend a conference and report your findings, only to find you have a babysitter in tow. Plenty of stories are in the media about Environment Canada scientists, among others, being “advised” on how to conduct themselves at conferences, and even having media advisers in tow.

What you might not have heard about was a recent Canadian conference, the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research, held January 3-5 in Windsor, Ontario, which had a special session on the Experimental Lakes Area. The meeting actually had quite a bit of media coverage here and here, but what wasn’t mentioned was that the Regional Director of DFO Science, Dr. Michelle Wheatley, was directed to attend the conference and sit in on the special session on the Experimental Lakes Area where a number of government scientists were reporting recent results on climate change and mercury research. You might not know that Dr. Wheatley spoke to each of the presenters that were government employees prior to presenting and told them to mind the questions that they answered- that they could address issues around the science they presented, but specifically not to comment on the elimination of the program, or answer questions regarding the closure of ELA by the Government of Canada. You can imagine how these staff must have felt to have their boss in the audience monitoring their every word. Apparently, if you’re a government employee, you need a babysitter who is capable of terminating your employment in the room if you are presenting the science you have conducted.

 

 

Stopping the science before it starts

Dave Burden, Director General of Central and Arctic Region, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explaining the new policy in the region for seeking external research funds.

Dave Burden, Director General of Central and Arctic Region, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, explaining the new policy in the region for seeking external research funds.

I’ve received some questions on my contact me page regarding my earlier post on recent departmental changes in Central and Arctic region that require us to ask permission to even apply for external funding at least 3 months before the proposals are even due. Remember, most government scientists rely almost exclusively on external funding to do their work as there’s little to no internal support for research.

The changes are outlined in an e-mail to staff sent out early February, and also appear on a page on the Central and Arctic DFO intranet site “Polaris”. Because it’s an intranet site, I can’t provide a link. So, here are some images of what the outlined changes are. The highlighting and emphasis was put there by the person who wrote it, not me.

New DFO policy on requesting permission to apply for funding

New DFO policy on requesting permission to apply for funding, page 1

new form outlining permission to seek funding, page 2

new policy outlining permission to seek funding, page 2

And here’s the actual form we’re supposed to fill out- before we even apply for the funding, to seek permission to do so.

RDS C&A pre-approval form

RDS C&A pre-approval form