Contracting out scientific work to non-government professionals, while cutting back on ministry scientists and experts, is threatening the B.C. government’s ability to make decisions based on sound science, says a highly-critical report released Thursday by the Ottawa-based group Evidence for Democracy.
The report, based on a survey distributed to 1,159 B.C. government scientists in 10 ministries, found that almost half of the 403 who responded to 64 questions believe that political interference is compromising their ministry’s ability to develop laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence and that decisions are often not consistent with the best available scientific information.
Since the Liberal government was elected in 2001, B.C.’s public service has been reduced to the smallest per capita in Canada and departments with science-based mandates have lost 25 per cent of staff scientists and licensed expert positions, according to the survey, which was partially funded by the Professional Employees Association.
“Overwhelmingly, the scientists felt that their ministries had insufficient resources to fulfil their mandates and that means they don’t have the ability to produce the expert reports that they used to,” said Katie Gibbs, one of the report’s authors.
One of the major concerns expressed by scientists was the government’s “professional reliance” policy, which they believe can lead to conflict of interest.
“Fifty-seven per cent 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,” says the report.
“In many cases these external professionals are hired by or are employees of the very industry or the very company that is applying for a permit, so there are certainly concerns around the independence of the research,” Gibbs said in an interview.
Other provinces do hire contractors, but they are usually limited to doing research or writing a report, she said.
“My understanding is that what is unique about professional reliance in B.C. is that it’s outsourcing not only evidence-gathering, but also decision-making in a number of cases,” Gibbs said.
B.C. is the only province to pass legislation establishing a college of biologists in an effort to shuffle off government accountability to professional organizations.
Examples of what can go wrong are exemplified by the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse, says the research paper, pointing to reports detailing the lack of compliance and enforcement culture and too few resources within the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
“The Auditor General also implicated overreliance on external qualified professionals and subsequent lack of oversight,” it says.
A policy planner with Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations said cuts to staff and funding has made it impossible to conduct scientific work that would best support changes in policy.
“Instead, policy is most often developed because of political pressure from select interest groups, in particular, forest industry stakeholders,” the planner wrote in response to the survey questions.
Scott McCannell, executive director of the Professional Employees Association, said all British Columbians should be concerned about the research findings.
“We need to avoid the next Mount Polley by acting now to reverse the situation and restore the level of oversight and protection that British Columbians deserve and expect from their government,” he said.
Problems with political interference, cuts to capacity and the use of external professionals are then made worse by unclear communications strategies, says the report.
It is unsettling that 32 per cent say they cannot talk to the media about their work and 42 per cent say they need to obtain permission before speaking to the media while only three per cent say they can speak directly to media without seeking approval, Gibbs said.
“We would like to see them able to answer the phone from a journalist directly without having to ask permission first. With journalists on tight deadlines, if there is a need for complicated permission, that could mean an indirect muzzling,” she said.
Calvin Sandborn, University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre legal director, said government has to remember that research by government scientists is information that all taxpayers have paid for.
“It is not information that should be manipulated by politicians,” said Sandborn, recommending that politicians follow the policy of former U.S. president Barack Obama who emphasized that scientists have a public obligation to share their findings.
“This is more like the (Donald) Trump administration,” he said.
The federal government, in an effort to turn around the extensive muzzling of scientists during Stephen Harper’s government, recently announced it would be creating science integrity policies and it is hoped provincial governments will follow suit, Gibbs said.
The situation in B.C. is not as severe as with the former federal government, but there should be clear, science-specific communications policies and a defined timeline for access to government researchers, the report recommends.
“For example, media requests must be responded to within two working days,” it says.
Other recommendations include giving government researchers the right to have the last review of documents to make sure they are not being misrepresented and for government to protect against conflict of interest by allocating adequate staff and financial resources to compliance and enforcement duties.
Government should retain oversight of work done by external professionals and increase research capacity, it recommends.
Evidence for Democracy has conducted similar studies at the federal level, but B.C. is the first province to come under the microscope, Gibbs said.
“With the election coming up we figured it was good timing. We would certainly like to see science talked about as one of the issues in the election as we’ve heard from a lot of people who are concerned about science integrity in B.C.,” she said.
Image: Christy Clark visits the Kitimat Valley Institute. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr