Office of Scientific Freedom

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


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 The contaminants program that was axed by DFO has been replaced by an advisory group that will fund external researchers to do the work DFO scientists used to do.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.



50 shades of muzzle: Part 1- Funding.

Much has been made over the past while about how we government scientists are kept under wraps from talking to regular folks via the media. The most notable (recent) cases are Kristi Miller, a government scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. However, there are more frequent (and more subtle) forms of suppression that occur on a regular basis, that in many cases prevent the science from being done in the first place. I thought it would be illustrative to outline some of them here. I’ve tried to think about where in each step of the scientific process, from an idea, to the execution of a project and ultimately, to the communication of that work at conferences, scientific journals and the media that our work suffers as a result of the bureaucratic oversight we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.

As I started writing this post, it became clear this will require at least a couple of entries to get through all the issues. So we’ll start with this one on the early stages of doing government science- like everything, it all starts with money.

1. Funding, funding, funding…

Any research scientist will tell you that the rubber hits the road with a line on funding- it’s very difficult to conduct science without some kind of money coming in to support the research- graduate students need paychecks, there’s lab equipment, disposables, field work (which can be brutally expensive depending on where you go- it’s not cheap to get to Ellesmere Island)- basically everything that costs money besides perhaps the salary of the scientist doing the work.

Clearly this is not a unique hurdle for government scientists. However, there are aspects about how we get our funding that are. There is perhaps an illusion that government scientists have a “budget” with which to conduct the research the government wants us to do. Not so. The only funding I can count on every year is $1500. To be clear, one thousand, five hundred dollars. That will pay a summer student for a month, and maybe some pens and paper for the office. Heaven help me if we need to repair field or lab equipment, or buy a new rainsuit. Clearly, this annual allowance not going to answer the major research questions the department needs answering, or the work that I as a scientist am interested in conducting.

So, we are asked to apply for internal competitive funds. Often, this funding is doled out in 1-year increments, making any long-term planning extremely difficult to do. Occasionally there’s multi-year funding pots available, but they are few and far between, and in the interest of regional fairness, any internal source of money that sounds reasonable at first glance often get diluted down between multiple regions, so you might get a fraction of what you ask for. But, some funding is better than no funding.

Okay, so I’ve got my $1500, maybe some internal funding. Oh wait- my manager just took 10% of those internal funds as overhead (that’s right, we are forced to use INTERNAL research dollars for administrative costs; apparently we have a very expensive photocopier, because I buy all my own pens and paper).

No matter, let’s try and use the money I do have as leverage to get some real work done, and look to outside funding sources. This can come from a number of places; NSERC discovery grants (but only if you’re an adjunct professor at a Canadian University, which I found out from personal experience is not all that simple or straightforward- more on that in another post); multi-year strategic grants through NSERC (if you can find a university faculty member to lead it; adjunct prof’s and government scientists can’t be the principal investigator on strategic grants); there’s provincial governments, funding through other federal departments, international organizations, etc. In short, many of the same places academic scientists can turn for funding. Should be no problem for an ambitious scientist, right?

Yes, but- this begs the question- shouldn’t government science departments be supporting the work that it’s scientists do? If you want your scientists doing work that fits your “departmental mandate”, shouldn’t you give them the money to support research in those directions? Apparently not- they expect you to find the money to do research that fits their priorities.

Let’s put that issue aside for the moment- no government has unlimited funds, so maybe seeking external funding for government-mandated work is justifiable. External funding often comes directed towards specific problems or issues; it just means we need to find the money pots that are aligned with our departmental “mandates”, or aligned closely enough. Until very recently, that call was up to us (the scientists). Unfortunately, new rules about what we’re even allowed to apply for in the first place may make this game even more difficult.

To get money into the department to do our work, we sign (and enter) “memorandums of understanding” (MOUs) and “collaborative agreements” (CAs)- contracts that say what the money is for, how much we get, and for how long. The new and somewhat disturbing rules around these contracts say that we need to seek departmental approval BEFORE we even submit a proposal. That’s right- not once we find out we have actual money to support the work, but before we even apply for it. AND we need to seek approval 3-months prior to even submitting the proposal. If the work that you are even planning on applying for (or working with a collaborator on) is deemed for whatever reason not in the interests of the approving manager, it’s dead in the water. You can’t even take the step of asking for the money to do the work you want to do, or leave it up to peer-review if the proposed work is of scientific merit or provides information on a key topic of interest- if the manager doesn’t like it, then it’s back to trying to piece together your research program with your $1500.

A potentially bigger issue with the rule changes around external funding is the new rule that “Expenditures cannot be incurred before the funds are received in the region“. Translation- you can’t spend the money before you have it. This might seem reasonable, until you find out how long the signing of CAs and MOUs normally take. A common timeline looks something like this: You submit your MOU in April for the work you want to do in July, and by the time it goes from you up the chain to whomever needs to sign it (on both ends), you see the money sometime in November. This latest rule might very simply put an end to government-led arctic research as we know it. Arctic field research is expensive, and often only takes place over a very brief window in the summer when weather allows. The money to fund that work is almost never in place when it’s time to head into the field. If you can’t do the work till the money is in hand, then it won’t get done; to say that field work in the arctic would be difficult to carry out in November would be an understatement.

“But why can’t you just use the money from this year for next year’s field campaign?” you might ask. The reason is because it’s the government. Our fiscal year end is March 31st, which means whatever money for the year isn’t spent by then either needs to be returned to external funders or gets absorbed back into general revenue.

With the system that’s been in place before these rules, we’ve been able to manage to do some decent work as government scientists, thanks primarily to the existence of external funding. But with these new changes, it may be a long time coming before you hear of any real government science taking place.