Muzzling, mentorship, and the future of Canadian science: An interview with Dr. Steve Campana

Dr. Steve Campana is a renowned fisheries biologist, who previously headed up both the Otolith Research Laboratory and the Canadian Shark Research Laboratory for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. He left the public service after government cutbacks and policy changes made his working environment increasingly difficult. He now holds an academic appointment at the University of Iceland, which is where we spoke to him.

Dr. Campana has spoken out previously about muzzling and funding cuts. Evidence for Democracy’s Alana Westwood asked him about the consequences of these cuts for the quality of Canadian science, what this means for the next generation, and how to improve a grim situation:

AW: To start, I’d like to ask about mentorship in science in general. What does this usually look like?

SC: I see mentorship in terms of students that are coming up through the system and then getting into a laboratory for their thesis or for a summer job, and realizing that they really like what they are doing.  Supervisors or post-docs in a lab who see someone who is genuinely interested in the science will respond in kind, and give that person extra attention in scientific training and opportunities. I think the mentorship is really a working collaboration between a young person and a more established scientist.

AW: As a PhD student, I work closely with government scientists. My access to some of them is more limited than to my academic colleagues. Are government scientists currently encouraged to mentor the next generation?

SC: The short answer is very definitely no.

It has always been a little less straightforward in terms of how a federal government scientist can interact with students. It usually requires some sort of affiliation with a university, e.g. an adjunct professor. Some federal scientists go that route, but the majority do not, and are isolated from the university world and from students. This has always been a bit of a problem, but there is no question it has gotten much worse lately.

Government scientists have their head down and are just trying to survive. It’s really only a small percentage that have enough flexibility to be able to maintain these university linkages.

AW: What about internal training? Thousands of positions have been cut. My peers--early--career scientists hired for the few jobs that remain-- tell me they aren’t getting adequate mentorship.

SC: The reality is that a lot of [senior staff] have already retired, so the opportunity for internal training or mentorship has been lost. I’m not convinced that the reduced manpower is something that can be quickly fixed.

We’ve had so many cutbacks over the years that the few new scientists that come in haven’t had the opportunity to interact with the senior scientists, and that corporate memory has been lost.

Things as simple as how to do a detailed fish stock assessment… the new generation knows the math, but hasn’t been exposed to the realities of how the interaction with the environment and fishermen can change the theory. Those were abilities honed over decades, and now they have been lost. That’s really scary.

AW: What might the consequences of this be?

SC: Here’s what I see happening. In the not too distant future, something will happen in Canada that will be considered an environmental or scientific crisis. The government in power at the time is going to say “We have to do something! We need more scientists!”

But the scientists won’t be there.  So they will throw a whole lot of money at hiring. There are a lot of bright, highly motivated people out there, but without a specific skill set. They will come in, but will still be faced with lack of experience and funding, lack of mentorship, and bureaucratic roadblocks. It's not going to do any good.

AW: There is lots of documented evidence that the federal government has very restrictive communications policies and practices. How do these affect mentoring and collaboration?

SC: That’s an interesting question. Usually the communication roadblocks – the muzzling if you want to use that term – is more associated with the media and the ability to share scientific findings with the public. I don’t normally see problems with government scientists talking to university colleagues. The problem might be more from the aspect of forming a formal collaboration in terms of sharing grant money. There are major roadblocks to federal scientists sharing grant money, even if all of the money is coming from the university or outside agency.

These roadblocks to scientific collaboration are probably one of the best indicators that someone or some group of people at very high levels, perhaps at the political level, is actively trying to squash the government scientist. It’s a pretty extreme situation.

On the other hand I’m not sure that this is the major constraint now. The funding has gotten so miserable in so many government departments it’s not as if there’s a large number of projects they could collaborate on anyway.

AW: What does all of this mean for the quality of the science coming out of federal departments?

SC: The consequences for the department and for the federal government scientists are not good. Any time that you reduce the ability for scientists to communicate and interact with other scientists, the quality of the science will suffer.

The collaboration side is very important. Good scientists tend to collaborate a lot. They take advantage of the strengths of other people to make their own science even better. With reduced ability to interact with outside agencies such as universities, the government scientists will become increasingly less useful.

AW: This capacity loss extends to everything – personnel, institutions, equipment. From the outside, it looks crippling.

SC: From the inside it looks crippling too. We’ve been going through cutbacks for decades. This is not a recent phenomenon. It’s been a continuous decline since early 1990s, but lately, the rate of decline has really picked up. With [DFO], for instance, each scientist used to be allocated a certain amount of money for a research budget. That’s been cut to zero.

The only research funding that the government scientists can get now are these targeted pots, very often held in Ottawa for very specific goals. Applications are competitive and the rejection rate is high. So it might be that these targeted pots actually fund only 20% of the government scientists. For a scientist that doesn’t have collaborations or isn’t an adjunct professor who can apply for outside funding – they have nothing. No research money. It’s shocking. What are they supposed to work on?

AW: I spoke to someone who was funding their research with their own money and taking their vacation days to do fieldwork, because they can’t receive department support.

SC: I have an even more interesting addendum. I was doing research up in the Arctic the last few years, with a little bit of money from DFO, but mostly outside funding. People wanted the opportunity to work in a place that’s never been visited by humans, and a number of DFO staff wanted to go with me. They knew it was outside of their job, so they took vacation time to accompany me on my research trips. Last year, the senior manager at DFO tried to stop them from using their vacation to do this DFO-mandated field research.

AW: Wow. Is there is hope in the short term? With this upcoming election, are there changes that can be made politically that would have a noticeable effect on the ground?

SC: That’s probably the million dollar question right there.

The reality is that the federal government, no matter who is in power, does not have a lot of discretionary funding. Even with a change in government, I doubt there would be a return to funding levels that we had 10 years ago. I’d say that it’s fiscally impossible at this point. A new government might be able to stop the decline, or perhaps even add small increments. Unfortunately the funding situation is going to remain grim for the indefinite future… I think we’ve gone past the point of no return.

Now, where improvements could be made are some of the non-financial hurdles. Certainly the muzzling aspect would be trivial to fix--all it takes is a policy change. There’s a number of bureaucratic hurdles that have been put in place that almost seem punitive… as if their only goal is to demoralize government scientists.

Cases in point include being permitted to apply for [non-department] research money. Removing some of the barriers to travel. Scientists need to travel and interact with their colleagues, but right now, it’s effectively closed down.

 These hurdles could be removed quickly, and allow government scientists to... at least... do the work that they love to do.

 

Evidence for Democracy would like to thank Dr. Campana for speaking with us, and Christianne Aikens for transcribing the interview.

Alana Westwood

Research Coordinator

Alana Westwood leads E4D's national research program, coordinating the Network of Experts, as well as designing and delivering training workshops. She completed her PhD in conservation biology at Dalhousie University in 2016, studying forest ecology and bird species at risk.