Sharing science without the scientists

Well, another conference has come and gone (if you want a few highlights from it, check out the twitter hashtag #Congress_2013). The City of Saskatoon provided a nice, albeit pricey, location for the combined annual meetings of three large Canadian scientific organisations (CMOS, CGU and CWRA). Kudos need to be given to the organisers and all the volunteers who made it run smoothly, especially with the last minute withdrawals of a large number of presenters due to federal government restrictions.

One week before the conference was set to begin a very foreboding tweet was issued by the Congress 2013 twitter account:

Little did many of us know, just how large those holes were. It wasn’t until the conference actually got underway that it became more evident.

Even upon completing the updated science program, there were still a number of holes left (viewable in the program). There were also a number of poster spots missing that were supposed to be filled by federal government employees. This all brings me to the major point of this post:

Fiscal restraint is a valid and important practice, but at what point does this cross the line to muzzling and controlling scientists?  

For many federal research employees in the natural/environmental sciences, this conference would likely be one of the major (especially within Canada) conferences they would attend. There were attendees from academia, provincial governments, NGOs and industry all under one roof collaborating and sharing project findings, policy and thoughts.

I generally see the job of federal government researchers as twofold: 1) to produce primary research data, results and implications and 2) to communicate these results and their implications to policy makers and the general public. With the diverse nature of conference attendees, does this not sound like the ideal type of conference for them to attend?

What is even more frustrating is the timing of the decisions on travel allowances for federal employees. Many of them did not know if they were approved to attend until the Thursday or Friday before the conference began (on a Sunday). Let me emphasise that again – many didn’t find out they could attend until 2 or 3 days before the conference began. This ends up costing the government (and by default, the taxpayers) considerably more as last minute travel, accommodation and conference registration are notably more expensive.

To add insult to injury, a number of the researchers that were allowed to attend from gov’t have recently been given their termination notice and are winding down their term of employment with the government. Lets just say the discussions that were being had regarding the current federal approach to science were less than positive.

It should also be noted that many of the researchers whom were not able to attend were very senior members who had direct ties to the 3 scientific organisations present and many of the conference sessions.

In summary, I should emphasise that I am not attempting to diminish or minimise the work of those federal government employees who did attend – their presentations and discussion were informative and as useful – I am merely trying to point out some very questionable practices being undertaken by the federal government…

As a final concluding point, I found the choice of opening speaker to be rather ironic; as did most others it would seem. The following quote from Minister Kent during his opening address (taken from Michael E. Campana’s summary of the first day of the congress) highlights the smugness and irony of the current government:

“Science is absolutely critical in ensuring Canadians make informed decisions for their health, safety, security and economic prosperity and for the protection of their environment,” said Minister Kent. “Environment Canada’s scientists, researchers, technicians and meteorologists play an important role in delivering timely, accurate and reliable weather, water and climate services to Canadians”

While I don’t want to sound too negative, as the conference did end up being useful and productive, it was lacking a major component with the notable absence of many federal researchers. How do we go about changing this problem? I would wager that communicating the issue and raising awareness is the first step… Consider yourself aware.

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