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


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:

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.

How bad is it in other government departments?

A while ago now I presented the recent changes to the publication approval procedures in the Central and Arctic region of DFO, which has received a fair amount of attention in the media- collaborators are getting panicky about what this means to them reporting their work in a timely fashion, and many are wondering what it means for us as government scientists actually being able to report our findings in the scientific literature (let alone communicate it to the public).

It’s got me wondering what the situation is like elsewhere- is it the case that no one had noticed how relaxed things were in this particular region, and now we’re being brought into line with other regions? How does this process work in Pacific region? Maritimes? What about other government departments- Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Natural Resources Canada, National Defense- what are your publication procedures like? Are they worse than what we’re experiencing? Not as bad?

I would appreciate any insights as comments below- I’ll remind everyone that the identifying fields are not required to leave a comment here, you can do so safely anonymously.

The best I can do so far is some (unconfirmed) rumors I had heard swirling about that one office in Environment Canada where no one was in a director position to sign off on any publications- due to retirement of that person or something- that this situation left no mechanism to obtain approval from anywhere else, and that this was holding up all kinds of work from coming out, until someone else was in the position permanently. This seems totally outlandish, so I’m hoping someone can give me the actual story.

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.