Welcome to the rebooted science interview series here at Confessions of a Science Librarian! The previous incarnation mostly concentrated on people in the broadly definined scholarly communications community, like Mark Patterson of eLife, Peter Binfield and Jason Hoyt of PeerJ or author Michael Nielsen.
The series has been lying fairly fallow for the last few years so I thought my more recent involvement with Canadian science policy advocacy presented an interesting opportunity to start over. In particular, my participation in the recent iPolitics science policy series presented itself as a amazing chance to tap into a wonderful pool of science policy advocates and see what they think about the current situation in Canada.
So what I've done is invite each of the authors from that series to respond to the same set of email interview questions with the idea that I would publish their exact responses here.
Over the next month or two I will be publishing the interviews from those that have agreed to participate. Once a few of those are up, I plan to widen the field and invite a broader range of Canadian science policy advocates to join the fray.
Suggestions of interview participants are more than welcome. Please feel free to email suggestions to jdupuis at yorku dot ca.
University of Toronto Ph.D. candidate Dak de Kerckhove is up first.
Q1. Could you tell us a little bit about your scientific/technical/journalistic/political background and how you ended up involved in science advocacy? How do you define advocacy and what’s been the focus of your advocacy activities?
I am a fisheries biologist who through 10 years in environmental consulting and even more obtaining academic degrees has worked closely with government agencies (like Fisheries and Oceans Canada) on improving the accuracy and efficiency of environmental regulations, and with private companies on environmental permitting for large and small industrial projects (from the Enbridge Gateway Pipeline to culvert upgrades in Alberta). I am fortunate that these experiences have allowed me to sit on all sides of the table while everyone tries to balance economic development with ecological sustainability. I gradually became aware that there was a growing problem in Canada as I discovered that the only participants at this regulatory table who were clearly not interested in evidence-based policy decisions were the elected officials of our current government. Industry, regulators, consultants, contractors, and public stakeholders all favoured evidence-based solutions that could lead towards a better outcome for all. And importantly, even when my industrial clients were frustrated by the regulatory system, they understood its merits, and that scientific advancements could only improve it. My awareness turned to alarm as “belt-tightening” became the justification to cutting science-based programs (e.g. Experimental Lakes Area, Marine Pollution Prevention) even if their social, environmental and economic benefits vastly outweighed their cost. When the omnibus Bill C-38 neutered parliamentary debate on very questionable changes to established laws and our public servants could only privately voice their concerns from having being publically muzzled, I realized I had to get involved and raise my own voice for them.
The type of advocacy I was inspired to participate in is led by the examples from Kevin Page (former Parliamentary Budget Officer), Dr. David Schindler (former Professor), Brett Favaro (current PhD student), and the countless journalists doggedly filling Access to Information requests. Their example is to convey the numbers behind the political issues to the public and let them come to their own conclusions. In a sense, if one believes that science is repressed in Canada because it contradicts the ideology of the government, then objectively obtained numbers should stand on their own merit, without the need for political embellishment. This approach is attractive to me for a few reasons: 1) it starts by giving our government the benefit of the doubt and taking the statements they make at their word - which to me seems like the fairest place to start, 2) it provides everyone, including the government, with all the tools and data needed to check methods and even launch any counter arguments – which is transparent and based on peer-review, and 3) it simply allows scientists in the private arenas to state the results that their muzzled colleagues are well aware of, but not able to release, without needing to learn how to be a great publicist, debater or orator.
My first piece of advocacy was to look for the numbers behind Minister Joe Oliver’s claim that environmental legislation was holding up economic development. We couldn’t find them, and the publically available data we did find suggested instead that the great majority of reviews were efficiently done. We released this finding in a peer-review paper, as well as all the data, and offered recommendations on alternate policies that could expedite reviews. The paper is the most read in the journal since it was released in March 2013, and media outlets picked up the story and reported our findings. In that relatively small effort we achieved more than we had hoped. So it encouraged me to continue on.
Q2. The Conservative Government’s science policies since 2006 have been pretty controversial and hotly contested. What do you think has been the most damaging thing that they’ve done?
There are many policy changes that concern me, many valuable science-based programs that have been cut, and a few laws that have been perhaps unnecessarily changed, but what I am most concerned about is that the government has encouraged a public belief that all expert opinion is partisan and so should be controlled. When the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was closed, Minister John Baird argued publically that the group’s promotion of a carbon tax, which had become a partisan debate in federal politics, was the reason. When the government was criticized for muzzling scientists, Phillip Cross justified government control in his “What War on Science?” article in the Financial Post by invoking Steven Pinker’s statement that academics are biased towards the left, and government scientists are merely data gatherers without the expertise to comment on larger issues, and so both types of scientist should be controlled (by presumably someone with no scientific experience). This is an unbelievable statement by the former Chief Economic Analyst at Statistics Canada considering that 1) he above all people should recognize that it is primarily the data that has been muzzled, and 2) many of the former and current scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada are world renown and widely recognized pioneers in their field, some much more respected than the academics whose opinion he considers has more value (even if biased). The danger of this message is that it contaminates the credibility of all fields of research, and may not be so easy to reverse over time, even with a new government.
Q3. The conservative response to a lot of the activism that’s happened over the last few years has basically been to affirm that the Harper government has increased overall funding for science and that what some have called muzzling is really just management asserting its right to control what their employees communicate to the media. How do you respond to this?
There are others who have presented the data that at most completely counters, and at least qualifies, the statement that overall funding to science has been increased (e.g. Arthur Carty’s, Executive Director of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, informative presentation at the 2013 Science Policy Forum on some of those numbers). My personal feeling is that the muzzling goes far beyond asserting a right to control a message. We’ve seen that nternational colleagues are pulling out of scientific relationships with public service scientists from the fear that their hard earned research will be buried. We’ve heard from recently retired public service scientists that anything from routine interviews with the press to discussing polluted watercourses near major urban centers was disallowed by ministry managers. We’ve seen leading economic and scientific journals weigh in that the muzzling in Canada is much worse than anything that was found in the George W. Bush administration whose policies were promptly dropped when the new administration took over. These are serious infringements on the public’s right to know the expert opinion of the scientists that we the taxpayers fund to create and maintain a better life for us all. If Philip Cross is correct, and these government scientists are simply number crunchers who couldn’t possibly comment properly on policy, then should it not be easy for the wiser scientists in middle management positions to refute their statements? That may sound a little glib, but to state my overall approach to advocacy once more, if we are take the government and their apologists at their word, then wouldn’t a public debate still be a better option than muzzling? I certainly think so, and I am one of the public, and it is also the official policy of sister scientific ministries in the United States (e.g. the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration).
Q4. When the next government comes in, they will effectively have a kindof science blank slate to work with. What do you think are some policies the next government should focus on to rebuild their science and technology activities and infrastructure?
I think there are some attractive policy directions already being discussed on both sides of the floor in the House of Commons. The Open Data Portal which was created by the Conservatives is a significant step forward towards allowing the public to access the vast databases in our ministries. With a colleague, I recently review the portal and found the current data underwhelming, but the portal is young. No matter who governs after the next election, this platform needs to be further developed, and I certainly agree with Dr. David Eaves that new legislation should carry data reporting requirements and federal Access to Information responses should be posted on the portal. The NDP MP Kennedy Stewart recently introduced private member’s bill C-558 which calls for establishing an independent Parliamentary Science Officer. This idea seems so clearly in the interest of the Canadian public, and as it is also a Liberal priority policy resolution and is so obviously related to the PBO which was a Conservative initiative, it’s surprising that anyone could characterize it as a partisan initiative and not support it. With an independent science advisor I would hope that many of the other needed scientific and environmental policies would follow suit. Many of the policy decisions of the sitting government are beyond objective comprehension and cannot be justified by any reasonable arguments. A retroactive evaluation of some of these decisions needs to be undertaken with input from the technical experts in the ministries. Some of these decisions may need to be reversed (e.g. closing of important scientific and monitoring stations, loss of a robust census), others modified (e.g. provide the resources to achieve mandatory review times of environmental assessments) and some maintained (e.g. Rouge National Urban Park).
Q5. In the meantime, there’s lots of work to be done. But many in the science community shy away from overt political activity as it relates to their work. How would you convince skeptical but interested scientists to get involved with advocacy? And what do you think would be the most effective way for them to channel their energies?
Its difficult to encourage scientists to speak up if they think it will harm their careers. An understanding that advocacy and opinion is not treason is important, and the best way to do that is to encourage free speech with public employees and a communication strategy that includes the caveat that a technical expert’s opinion is not necessarily that of the government (this has been achieved in the US). Beyond this step, I encourage other scientists to get involved by doing what they do best: ask questions about policy directions, seek answers by examining the available data behind decisions, and release conclusions with the supporting evidence for the public to scrutinize. This allows scientists to play a valuable role in shaping Canada’s public policy without necessarily becoming advocates of any particular movement or party, and importantly preserve their objectivity in letting the numbers do the talking.