A survivor’s guide to being a muzzled scientist

I figured it would be a good idea to summarize some of the thoughts I have from having lived through this in the Canadian government to offer some ideas to colleagues in the US who are now entering what seems to be a similar (if not worse) era of limiting communication from government scientists and (possibly?) down-weighting scientific evidence in policy decisions, particularly as they relate to the environment and natural resource extraction. This comes from having worked for the Federal government for 4 years, the last two of which were under a conservative majority government which resulted in deep cuts and heavy top-down control of how things were done and approved. This blog was spawned from my experience cumulatively, but especially in the last two years when it seemed like everyone I knew was being laid off or reassigned and it literally felt like the philosophical foundations of scientific inquiry within the federal government were crumbling. While it wasn’t much fun, I can say I learned a lot from that experience, and hopefully some of what I learned can be used by others who are now going through the same thing.

Feel free to look through the pages of this blog for inspiration- much of it will be specific to the situation we found ourselves in, but other aspects may provide some thoughts as to how to deal with the current situation in the US. Recognizing that not many folks have the time to go reading all my old blog posts, I figured I could summarize some of what I felt were the most important bits from my experience. Keep in mind that I ultimately left the public service, but much of what I have below was a successful survival strategy for me when I had no other options.

With that said, here are my humble suggestions (in no particular order):

1. Get a personal e-mail address, use it on your home computer. Take a page from Hilary; these aren’t state secrets, but it’ll give you the opportunity to communicate with colleagues without having your employer watching your every move. Particularly important if you want to start up your own anonymous blog (like this one used to be), or are taking other actions to try and loop around the restrictions you now find yourself facing.

2. Get anonymous, get online. Twitter, a blog, etc. This is a great way to let people know what’s going on on the inside. Note that it also means that media won’t always be able to carry the stories you post- I had a couple of instances where the editors nixed quotes from me (through anonymous interactions with journalists) because they couldn’t verify my identity, but you have an outlet nonetheless.

3. Involve university collaborators in all your work and publications. Not just because they are colleagues, but because this strategy can ultimately save the communication of your work. This breaks down into several important sub-themes:

A. Communicating your science. Even though you can’t comment on the work, your collaborator can. This is extremely important to ensure you have at the study design stage- in cases in the past where other scientists tried to discuss the findings of Canadian government researchers that were not permitted to comment on their work (e.g., Kristi Miller at DFO), those scientists didn’t always get it right, or communicate the important points. Collaborators can do this effectively.

B. Data availability and sharing. Protect any and all data agreements you have in place, and in all cases ensure that university collaborators have a copy of the datasets.

C. Copyright release. Can’t get approval from your supervisor for copyright release on that paper? One strategy would be to take your name off and let your collaborator submit it, with something like the following in the acknowledgements: “The significant roles of EPA scientists A, B, and C could not be formally recognized through authorship due to their agencies’ denial to sign off on copyright release of this work, and are recognized here.” Ideally this wouldn’t happen, and it might hurt publication records of government scientists during this interim, but it will get the work out there vs. Being denied supervisory sign-off. And presumably granting agencies on the other side of this (should they exist) will accept explanations for publication gaps where this can be recognized in acknowledgements.

4. Recognize that not all of your colleagues will want to do what you are doing. Your neighbour who is supporting 3 young kids on a single income will likely not want to take the risk of rocking the boat. I was in that place for a very long time, until I finally cracked and decided that the voice of my colleagues needed to get out, and I provided that venue and perspective which was to that point missing from the discussion.

5. All of us need to help educate the public on why government science matters and how it’s different from academic funding and projects, as well as the important role of science in informing good and effective policy decisions when it comes to the management of natural resources and the environment. There are plenty more examples out there, we need to make sure people know about them. There are also lots of great ways to analyze data to show where policy decisions that aren’t based on science are demonstrably wrong and unfounded.

6. Get engaged with your union. The public service in Canada is unionized, and the actions taken by the Federal government there under Harper ultimately led to including wording around the communication of science in the most recent round of bargaining. By poking around on the internet, it looks like EPA scientists are represented by the “National Treasury Employees Union”. While it looks like you can’t strike, you can do things like “informational picketing” and other actions. The NTEU has a history of securing change through litigating the federal government- I wouldn’t be surprised to see something like this again if it gets really bad.

Hopefully it doesn’t get quite as bad as it did in Canada, where the House of Parliament actually voted against the value of science in policy decisions. And then gave each other high-fives after doing so (seriously).

Don’t forget, we’re all in this together, and it’s up to all of us, no matter what country we are in, to help combat the current war against objectivity. People need a reminder that there’s an important difference between “up” and “down”, even when the President and it’s spokespeople are trying to convince us that down is up, and never mind what anyone else tells you.