Open your mouth and say… Science.

How refreshing.

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DFO scientist after being alterted of new communications policies on Friday.

After much talk of “cautious optimism” from just about everyone regarding the new Liberal government in power in Canada, we are seeing some of that optimism being confirmed. I and many others have commented that the first and simplest step to restoring public trust in our government’s commitment to science would be to lift communications restrictions on scientists speaking about their research. After being arguably one of the most strict enforcers of government science “muzzling”, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was the first to announce to it’s scientists that there was a change in communications rules (see media stories here, here, here, and here). An announcement was also made by Environment Canada to it’s scientists Friday. Based on this statement from Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, the other science-based ministries should be following suit this week, if they haven’t already.

Not only does this immediately improve the current perception of the new government with regards to how they value science- and perhaps more importantly, their scientists and the trust and respect this policy change says they have for them- but it is also a big olive branch and sign of good faith as PIPSC (the union representing most Canadian government scientists) prepares for bargaining. A clause defending “scientific integrity” was one of the platforms of their current bargaining position, and this policy change goes a long way towards checking that particular item off the list.

This is a wonderful, and badly needed policy move, in and of itself.

Now, the hard work starts. As I outlined in my many rantings here, and in other places, we now need to change the culture surrounding government science.

We need to make sure we have managers willing to make decisions, NOT the ones who were simply happy to pass information up the pipe and read our marching orders like we’ve had the past 5 years. Maybe we need a new system of management in government science departments altogether.

We need to reinvest in government science; hire new scientists, build new programs of research. Millions of dollars were stripped from government programs, and thousands of front-line jobs were lost. What few research dollars that came back were in highly targeted research areas. Provide a means for government scientists to address not only the “targeted” needs, but also to build their own research programs; you’d be surprised how good they are at finding and addressing the problems you have on their own.

We need to remove administrative barriers for hiring, travel and securing of external research funds. It can’t take 2+ years to hire new scientists and permanent staff. We have a broken Fisheries Act that is understaffed EVERYWHERE on the front lines; science, fisheries protection, and enforcement. Invest so that we can understand the resource, protect it properly, and enforce the act when it’s violated.

With a commitment to ministers being able to actually have some say in what happens in their departments, and this new change in communications policy for Canada’s scientists, it shows something the previous government seemed to have very little of: trust. If that trust permeates through a renewal in management, and can also be supported by commitments to reinvest in science in dollars and people, then the real change that’s needed to make government science work again might just happen.

I think I can now remove the “cautious” preface from my optimism regarding where things are headed for government science.

 

And here I thought it was just me…

I’m pleased to say that I’ve received my first comment from another public servant. The names have been changed for anonymity. Thank you “Larry” for your contribution.

Comment: Hi there. Great work. Not all scientists can write in a style accessible to the general public. Jeff Hutchings has put out some good editorials on this topic, one recently in the Toronto Star. This muzzling of scientists business is bad news. It takes forever to get research published as it is…you have to compete for funding, apply for permits, do the study (often with several field seasons), analyze data, write it up, submit to a journal, wait for the review, do the revisions, resubmit, and so on. And now add another very uncertain timeline of an internal government “review”? Without needing to exaggerate, this added step will add many more months if not years – with the risk that approval may be denied at the end. Who in their right mind will want to collaborate with a DFO researcher now? I suppose that’s the point…

Another form of government muzzling that is taking place is the mass demotions of regulatory staff across the country. Basically making it so very few people will be at a level of authority to speak at public forums or make regulatory decisions, particularly on big development proposals like mines or pipelines. 

Anyway, I was sent your blog from a buddy in academia. Everyone involved with science is disturbed by the state of things – as they should be.

Keep on fighting the good fight.

Thanks. Larry

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.

Evidence for Democracy

My apologies for being quiet for a bit here- I’ve been trying to do, well, science.

Anyway, during my brief hiatus, I’m pleased to see that the folks who brought you the Death of Evidence rally in Ottawa this past summer have begun another group: Evidence for Democracy. Heck, they even have a facebook and twitter account.

Their initial campaign, “science uncensored” was launched about two weeks ago. What’s unique about this organization is that it’s citizen-based and is asking for citizens to weigh in on the topic of science censorship by the government. It’s clear that this government doesn’t seem to care what the journalists or scientists think, so maybe they’ll care what the voting public thinks.

Please have a look at the site and considering adding your name to the list of supporters. Heck, you even get to send the prime minister a message in support of the cause.

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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.

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