Monday, 16 September 2013

Stand up for Science in Canada

Alain Berinstain and Marc Garneau - Photo by Rob Lynch

I had been preparing my team of research scientists at the Canadian Space Agency for months for what was about to happen.  We had gone through all the details of the Treasury Board’s policy on Work Force Adjustment, in case this day would come.  And this day in early 2012 was the toughest day of my career so far.

I wanted to be sure my staff’s questions would be answered in advance, and that they also realised that the policy could be used to their advantage.  If your permanent position as a federal public servant is at risk or eventually cut, you do have options, some of which are not so bad.  If you’ve been around for long enough, there are payouts available, or you could even go back to school for a couple of years to get better qualified and be kept as a priority for hiring in the future, should a position become available.  You also have priority for other positions anywhere in the federal public service for other positions that become available for which you are qualified.  My job as their Director was to train them in the facts and to put as positive a spin on all the good things that could come out of their positions potentially being cut.  They were probably among the best-prepared set of research scientists in the federal government for what was to come.

On that April morning, I had to give my employees their letters and although I stayed positive but solemn, it was tough.  I knew that for some of them, my coaching had not helped their level of anxiety because it was not clear yet how they might fit in what was left of CSA after the serious budget cuts that led to this decision.

There were two things going on in my head - one was the fact that I was breaking this news to people I cared about, and the second was the bigger picture question - why was this happening in the first place?  What did this mean for space, for science, for Canada?

Federal government program reviews and cuts in spending are not bad in themselves.  It is a responsible thing for any organisation to do this, and the federal government needs to regularly check that they are spending the Canadian taxpayers’ money appropriately.

What I witnessed, however, was the use of a detailed, objective review of programs as an excuse to implement an ideological disrespect for the role of science and scientists within federal government.  The Canadian Space Agency is a small example of what is happening nation-wide.

I had been one of the leaders internally at CSA heading the development of our Values and Ethics principles.  It was time to apply what I had been coaching to myself.  When your personal values do not coincide with the values of the organisation for which you work, there’s a problem.  It became clear to me that I had to make a change.

I was at CSA for 17 years, and I loved every minute of it.  I even found a way to assign a positive value to helping my employees through the cuts.  I enjoyed my time at CSA because I always felt I was making a difference, helping young people and researchers across the country further science and research through space.  What had become clear to me was that for the next few years, until a government that values science gets back in power, my potential impact on the country would be diminished.  With no research scientists on staff any more, with research funding to universities severely limited, and no new money for missions for a while, I decided to make the move.

I have not given up.  I still strive to make a difference, only through more impactful channels for now.  Communicating science is what I do professionally now, and I am working hard to be more and more involved politically to try to affect change that way.

To all my friends still at CSA - continue to find your way to make an impact.  Do the best you can do with what you are given.  None of this is a reflection of you and your dedication and talents.  Keep up the good work - I am working to try to give you more to work with.

Today I am participating in the Montreal rally for Stand Up for Science.  It feels great to finally be able to speak up!