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Panel discussion on the state of public science in Canada

Panel agrees that the Canadian public science landscape has changed in recent years with some negative consequences for Canadians, and our science reputation.
A panel having a discussion.

On March 12, 2015, Evidence for Democracy and Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association hosted a panel discussion on the state of public science in Canada. The event was moderated by E4D Executive Director, Dr. Katie Gibbs, and featured a panel of diverse Canadian science stakeholders including: Mike De Souza, Investigative Resources Correspondent, Reuters News Agency; Emily Norgang, Senior Researcher, Canadian Labour Congress; and Jake Rice, Chief Scientist, Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Overall, the Panel agreed that in recent years Canada’s public science landscape has changed with some negative consequences for Canadians, and our science reputation. A few highlights from the conversation are outlined below.

After opening the event by sharing some common understandings of what public science is, the conversation steered towards recent communication and information policy changes that are affecting the generation or sharing of public science. Dr. Rice described how procedures for conference attendance approval have been lengthened noting, “Even after an 18-step process to get approval for attending a conference, it still takes my administration assistant six hours to finish the actual booking of the reservation.” Reflecting on recent funding cuts, Ms. Norgang added that this problem has been exacerbated by cuts to public science support staff stating, “Sometimes there is only one assistant for two dozen scientists resulting in more scientists doing administrative work instead of research.”

There were extensive comments made about information sharing challenges caused by the new government-wide policy requiring public servants to limit their email inbox to two gigabytes of data. The panellists’ shared sentiments were best expressed by Mr. De Souza’s comment that “it is a policy that encourages public servants to delete the information that might be needed at a later date. As a result, the trail of evidence of how decisions were made is lost.” Dr. Rice added that even when information is available it is often difficult to share because of data encryption. While recognizing that it does makes sense to encrypt certain kinds of information, he stated that having “all government data encrypted… makes it very hard for scientists to share data.” He expressed frustration over how this change has slowed down information exchange in the scientific community, referencing how he could not simply hand over a dataset to a colleague via email or USB. He explained how instead he would have to follow a number of steps to have the data decrypted and forwarded along.

This conversation was followed by a discussion of media and its role in sharing public science. In particular, Mr. De Souza spoke to the importance of having access to public scientists and their expertise to generate accurate news stories for the general public. “Current communications policies are problematic for journalists,” he stated. Mr. De Souza noted how most interviews must be done in writing, resulting in an inefficient use of both his and government time. He elaborated on how he must develop multiple detailed questions to ensure a meaningful reply, which is usually followed by some back and forth on how there are too many questions. He shared his frustrations stating, “Journalists used to be able to simply call the source… this trend of avoiding in person interviews inhibits the discussion needed to allow for the collection and dissemination of accurate information.”

When asked about the role our government should play in the cultivation of public science, the Panel’s comments suggested that a “business” approach to government has impeded its healthy development in Canada. Dr. Rice stated, “Our governments, and not just this current one, manages government like you would manage a business, but that’s not how you manage science… This management is undertaken at the cost of quality of the science being done.” He then spoke on how a lack of science expertise at the executive level has been particularly detrimental noting, “There are consequences to managing the science like a business. You need management to have some expertise to tackle these issues. Our current approach does not do this well.” Ms. Norgang spoke more specifically to the current government’s actions stating, “The broader issue is that we have a government that doesn’t like government and they are defunding it until it is paralyzed.”

The conversation closed with discussion of what strategies might be taken to improve public science in Canada. Reflecting on recent PIPSC actions to include science integrity policies in their collective bargaining agreements, Ms. Norgang stated, “This sort of enforceable policy is a solution to strengthening public science in Canada.” Alternatively, Dr. Rice asserted, “Public engagement and knowledge crowdsourcing, not a particular government policy, is the most important force shaping our future in the long-term.” The audience asked Mr. De Souza for suggestions on how to draw more media attention to this issue. Mr. De Souza suggested that social media holds great opportunities for accelerating this type of engagement. He gave a number of examples where individuals have been able to draw media attention for causes through viral social media campaigns. Overall, the Panel agreed that despite the ample challenges described during the discussion, public engagement was key to improving public science in Canada.

Thank you to Carleton University’s Graduate Students’ Association and to our amazing volunteers, Nyssa McLeod and Maggie Simpson, for making this event possible.

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