By Mika McKinnon, Editorial Manager
Canada is going on a hiring binge to restock its government with scientists. But is this enough?
For a long, hard decade, Canada’s politicians rejected data-driven decision-making. Muzzling government scientists so they couldn’t speak freely to the press was one of the most visible symptoms, but at the same time something more insidious was happening. Hiring practices changed, dramatically reducing or even freezing the hiring of junior staff in many science-focused agencies. Attrition and restructuring took its toll, leaving skeleton staffs as senior scientists retired or moved to other jobs.
Now under a new government, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced a hiring binge of 135 new research positions. Less dramatically, other isolated science postings are slowly popping up on the government job board as agencies either hire new staff or start filling pre-qualified pools in hopes of hiring candidates for positions later. But is this too little, too late to repair the damaged capacity of Canadian scientists to serve the public interest?
In 2013, Environica Research surveyed 1,000 public service scientists in Canada in part about the impact of funding cuts and public service restructuring. This is a representative sample as reported by the Professional Institute of Public Science in Canada. Some of the comments solicited from the participants included:
“There is little to no succession planning and there are many people who have accumulated a career of knowledge that have or will retire in the near future.”
“My department is losing 25% of its scientific staff and 33% of its technical staff with no reduction in workload, all to meet funding restrictions. I don’t know how the remaining staff will do the work.”
“Overall budget cuts to the dept. have greatly affected our ability to meet environmental regulatory requirements related to our own dept. operations.”
“Experts in their field have lost their jobs (mostly forced into early retirement) with nobody to take their place. Zero knowledge transfer.”
“Our department looks dead.”
Taken together, the responses painted a bleak picture of a country’s science capacity being whittled away. Research projects abruptly shuttered and early retirement with no plan for handing off knowledge and responsibility resulted in the loss of institutional knowledge. With fewer people to fill the same responsibilities, Canada’s scientists were stretched trying to fulfill their public duties. Regulatory oversight slipped, and wait times grew.
These anecdotes are backed up by cold, hard data provided by the annual Statistics Canada report on federal science activities. Accounting for inflation, the annual budget for science and technology has dropped roughly 4% between the 2009/2010 and 2014/2015 fiscal years. But diving into the details yields a nastier story of thousands of lost jobs. Administrative positions for “extramural” programs are the only job category that remained relatively stable.
Can we rebuild public science capacity in Canada? Image credit: PIPSC
Extramural expenditures are any money spent outside the federal government. Historically, this meant funding programs at other levels of government (provincial and municipal) or nonprofit agencies working in the public’s interest. Now, despite a larger share of the budget than ever before being allocated to extramural programs, these funding sources are nearly nonexistent. Instead, the biggest increase in spending was targeted at business enterprises conducting private industry research and development.
Not captured by the numbers (or in the reduced census) was the associated migration of early-career scientists out of the country. With no public service jobs or federal research grants, rumours spread of researchers hunting opportunities beyond our borders. If it’s real, it’s an employment migration echoing the brain drain of the previous generation.
One survey respondent offered a glimmer of hope back in 2013 for eventual political change, writing:
“In my 31 years with the federal public service, I’ve never seen such a systematic dismantling of science capacity. My only hope of ever seeing a scientifically viable and credible public service again is a change in government.”
Meanwhile, another offered a grimmer look at what it would take for us to truly understand the damage:
“Federal government staff have been cut so much that the public might not realize it but a lot of the activities that we used to look at are no longer being overseen by the government. […] It will take a tragedy for this to come out in the public eye.”
Now that change is here, will it be enough for Canada to recover its science capacity? Can Canada regain the trust of its vulnerable early-career scientists, or compensate for early retirement of its senior staff? Will Agriculture, Environment, Natural Resources, and the rest of the decimated science agencies be following Fisheries and Oceans with their own hiring binges to restock their offices with curious minds? And if they do, will they be able to salvage enough scraps to rebuild the knowledge that was lost?
Most importantly, can we recover a strong core of scientists working for the public interest before something happens that makes it painfully, undeniably obvious just how much Canada needs it?