Oversight at Risk

The state of government science in British Columbia.

"Public science affects all of us - from clean drinking water to making sure bridges and roads are safe - it’s in all of our best interest to ensure that government science is independent, robust and openly communicated." Dr. Katie Gibbs, report author and Executive Director, E4D.

Oversight at Risk: The state of government science in British Columbia.

The report is based on a survey that was distributed to 1159 government scientists in BC across 10 ministries who are members of the Professional Employees Association. The survey included 64 questions related to communication, independence and capacity for government science research in BC.

Key Findings:

  • The main challenge for provincial scientific integrity in BC is cutbacks to capacity within the public service, which impedes the government’s ability to fulfill their responsibility for regulatory oversight.
  • A majority of government scientists (71%) surveyed said they have witnessed a decrease in research capacity in their ministry and/or branch over the course of their tenure in the BC government.
    • 68% of government scientists surveyed believe that there are insufficient resources to effectively fill their branch or ministerial mandate
    • 71% think that capacity changes negatively impact their ability to produce scientific/expert reports and documents
    • 59% think that capacity changes negatively impact environmental research/regulation
  • Many government scientists report that they cannot speak to the media about their research (32%); others say they can if they obtain approval first (42%). Only 3% of government scientists said they can speak to directly to media without seeking approval.
  • Of scientists who have been approached by the media, 47% were always able to share their research findings, 41% were permitted to respond on some occasions but not others, and 12% were not permitted to respond on any occasion.
  • The BC government supports scientific collaboration, with a majority of scientists responding that they are able to give public or academic talks on their Ministry-related research (73%), and able to collaborate with other researchers (81%).
  • Scientists are concerned about the potential effects of research and decision-making being increasingly outsourced to external professionals. Scientists point to risks of conflicts of interest, which arise when these professionals are employed by the same industry the government is required to regulate.
    • 57% of government scientists surveyed believe that the government’s increased reliance on external rather than Ministry staff is compromising their Ministry’s ability to use the best available evidence in decision-making
  • Around half (49%) of government scientists surveyed across Ministries believe that political interference is compromising their ministry’s ability to develop laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence.

Recommendations to strengthen scientific integrity in BC:

Capacity

  • Increase public service research capacity. Survey responses from the Ministries of Agriculture, Environment and Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations suggest that without more capacity, these Ministries and their branches are unable to complete research to achieve their mandates.
  • Increase transparency and accountability around the use of external professionals. Create improved policies and processes to ensure that government scientists have clear guidelines for adequately overseeing and analyzing the tasks outsourced to external professionals.
  • Retain government oversight for the work of external professionals. Functions such as creating policies and programs, monitoring, auditing and ensuring compliance need to be completed on schedule and be adequately monitored and reported on by the government.
  • Improve succession planning and internal staff knowledge transfer. Create branch- and Ministry- level plans for succession to ensure the maintenance and continual improvement of data and expertise in the government over time.

Communication

  • Create science-specific communications policies. Implement clear, publicly available policies in all Ministries for scientific personnel to provide guidance for communications with the media, the public, and other researchers.
  • Science communication policies should include a defined timeline for effective access to government researchers (for example, media requests must be responded to within two working days).

Independence

  • Give government researchers the right to have last review of materials and documents that make use of their work. This helps ensure that science is not being purposefully or accidentally misrepresented in reports or communications materials.
  • Protect against conflicts of interest. Bolster the compliance and enforcement of laws protecting BC’s environment, through increased technical training for enforcement officers, clear allocation of roles and responsibilities for government and professionals working in compliance, and allocating adequate staff and financial resources to diligently perform compliance and enforcement duties.