Open Letter from a Scientist to a Bureaucrat

Let us assume for the moment that I am a scientist who has worked in a government research organization for 25 years under a series of bureaucrats. I have just retired and the object of this letter is to tell a bureaucrat what is good and what is bad about the bureaucratic government system. If you work in a perfect government system, perhaps you do not need to read further.

Dear Sir/Madam:

I would like to offer you some free advice that comes from a scientist who has worked in government for many years. This is presumptuous to be sure in light of our relative positions, but I feel you might benefit from some notes from the trenches.

First, science should never be organized in a top-down manner. We ecologists know about trophic cascades and the consequences it has for the lower trophic levels. You should not tell us what to do because you know nothing about the subject matter of the science, in this case ecology. I note especially that an MBA does not confer infinite wisdom on science matters. So I suggest you consider organizing things bottom-up. Your job is to provide scientists with the technical support, the funding, and the facilities to do their work. I note that this does not preclude you providing us with general areas of science in which we are expected to do our research. If our general position is to study the effectiveness of pollination in California crops, you should not tolerate us going to Africa to study elephant ecology. We appreciate that the government has at least some general ideas of what is critical to study. If they do not, it would be advisable to gather a group of scientists to discuss what the critical problems are in a particular area of science. Scientists do not work in closed rooms and do have a general understanding of what is happening in their field.

Second, do not muzzle us about anything scientific. We do not work for you or for the current government but we do work for the people of Canada or Australia or whatever country, and our mandate is to speak out on scientific questions, to provide evidence based policy guidance and to educate the public when errors are promulgated by people who know nothing about what they speak. This could well include government ministers who are known at least on occasion to utter complete nonsense. Our job is not to support the government’s policies of the day but to provide evidence about scientific questions. In general we scientists do not see government ministers crying out that they know more about brain surgery than trained doctors, so we think the same attitude ought to be taken toward ecologists.

Third, ask your scientists about the time frame of their scientific studies. Most bureaucrats seem to think that, since the world was created in 7 days, scientific work ought to take no more than a year or two or perhaps three. We would like to tell you that many, perhaps most, important ecological questions involve a time frame of 10 years or more, and some require continuous funding and support for periods in excess of 50 years. You apparently did not ask medical scientists to stop working on cancer or malaria after 3 years or even 50 years, so we are uncertain why ecologists should be kept to short time frames for their research. Ecological research is perhaps the most difficult of all the sciences, so if we do not find answers in a few years it is not because we are not working hard enough.

Finally, ask your scientists to publish in national and international journals because that is the corner stone for judging scientific progress. We do not mind having rules about rates of publication. And as a spur please fund your scientists to go to scientific meetings to present their results to the scientific world. And have them communicate to the public what they are doing and what they have found. After all the public pays, so why should they not hear about what has come of their tax dollars.

Your job, in a nutshell, is to support your scientists not to hinder them, to encourage their work, and to speak to the higher levels of government about why funding science is important. And to (at least on occasion) protest about government policies that are not based on scientific evidence. If you are successful in all of this, the people of your country will be the better for it. On the other hand, you may be headed for early retirement if you follow my advice.

I wish you success.

Sincerely yours,

A.B.C. Jones PhD, DSc, FRS, FAA
Retired

10 thoughts on “Open Letter from a Scientist to a Bureaucrat

  1. Cameron

    Should I find it more disturbing that this letter seemingly can be applied to any developed government, or should it be comforting?

    A modern world, where pass emotionally based laws that are ecologically unsustainable.

    Reply
  2. squirrelsnz

    PS. Scientists – and ecologists are no exception – are generally honest people, with an innate curiosity about the workings of the natural world. It’s not necessary to adopt a suspicious attitude, or assume that every scientist will run off to Africa and study elephants if that’s not what you requested. Your default position should be one of trust, I know, it’s not easy.

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  3. Philip H

    Interesting letter. Obviously from it I can’t tell which government science agency you work in, but I question your assault on “bureaucrats” as senior career managers in a hierarchical agency setting. I’m one of those “bureaucrats” – or at least commentors on my own blog a couple of years ago seemed to think so – yet I don’t have a business degree. I have an advanced Oceanography degree. I used to do filed science, I used to publish, and I still write policy and think pieces occasionally. I’m the guy at HQ who makes sure the scientists get both consistent marching orders, and consistent checks to do their job. But I’m not a day to day scientist.

    So what am I to make of your rant?

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    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      It is good to see that some bureaucrats are good scientists, and consequently you appear to be the kind of person we scientists would like to see in such positions. Unfortunately the scientific world is not always run that way. So I congratulate you as the exception to the rule and I wish we had more like in the agencies I deal with.

      Reply
      1. Philip H

        Charles,
        Thanks for the kudos – but I rally don’t need them What I could use – which would make a great follow-on post FWIW – is a discussion of what someone like me can do to bridge the obvious gap you highlight.

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  4. Petechia

    Phillip:
    The fact that you are actually asking for advice from (presumably) disgruntled scientists on this issue sets you apart from the mainstream bureaucrat or science manager crowd that some may be familiar with.
    You asked what you are to make of Jones’ rant. Well, as a government scientist myself, I can say that you need to take it seriously and realize that in general, we have a true crisis in Canada at the moment. Beyond the attitudinal issues raised by Jones, I think it would go a long way if we felt that science managers were thumping the table a little more in concern over what seems to be going on.
    At every possible opportunity, send the message to YOUR superiors (DG? ADM? Etc.) that scientists need to be able to have more flexibility with budgets to include the hiring of term and casual staff and most importantly NSERC VRFs in order to deliver on their programs. Where is the mentoring and recruitment and the reward system for doing good work? (and I am not referring to the RES promotion system here).The strangling of the system through the inability to hire (beyond the summer student FSWEP programs) is crippling to many scientists. Champion the use of Grants and Contribution agreements between government staff and universities to deliver programs and speak LOUDLY that the cutting back of these programs is not acceptable. OBJECT to those senior administrators who wear as badge of status the giving back of approved but unspent funds each year to Treasury Board. Be disgraced when scientists and their support staff are not replaced at retirement. DEMAND why key and expensive equipment sits idle in labs because we no longer have the staff to run it. Ask yourself why Canada’s reputation in science in so many fields has dropped precipitously. Surely it is not because we are all working on elephants …. In short, object to the sense perhaps among your colleagues in HQ that scientists are “unmanageable prima donnas” who have little idea what the real questions are that government needs answers to. My experience is we scientists know the issues but usually need to fight the system to keep research on track to find and publish the answers and to disseminate those findings to the Canadian public as needed..

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    1. squirrelsnz

      Substitute ‘Canada’ for virtually any developed country. I note that our colleagues in China and Africa and elsewhere are now at the cusp of being ahead of us (or they are already), because their governments are recognising the value of investing in science and scientists. I cannot comment on their bureaucratic structure, but I marvel at the funding amounts and the recognition that supporting their scientists to go to conferences and interact with their colleagues is a valuable part of their scientific endeavours. In a decade we will be far, far behind.

      Reply
  5. Philip H

    Colleagues,

    Thanks for your kind and forthright responses. One thing they clarified for me – which may be buried in other bog posts here – is that this is a primarily Canadian focused rant. And in that, sad to say, I may be of limited use to you all as I work south of the border in the U.S. federal system.

    That said, down here we are facing some of the issues you are facing, particularly the issues of not replacing retiring scientists, and not having a good pipeline to entrain post-docs into the government science community. I also can’t speak to funds give backs – one way or another we manage to spend around 99.5 or more % of our annual budgets – mostly because if you don’t spend it in the US system you don’t get it the following year. And finally, my work presently is to run the sort of national university-government science collaboration you need up there. Our funding hasn’t been cut (!), but it is being spread over ever increasing numbers of scientific questions, meaning the per capita investment in any one science or science/policy/management issues is declining. To me that’s actually a good sign – at least there is some recognition that he number of complex issues science can speak to has grown.

    And finally, and practically – bureaucracies exist across science. They exist in universities just as much as in government, which is why I am not ever swayed by “greener grass” arguments. Because of that, and because of the fact that much governmental science is done within agencies that have legal mandates, I also take some issue with the notion that scientists in labs are the ONLY people in such bureaucracies capable of making decisions about what science is important. To be sure, even if you take home a government paycheck, you should be able to run your own lab and projects in the way you think most scientifically robust. But if you are going to ask me, or my Canadian counterparts to thump the table on your behalf, please at least pay lip service to the mission of your agency. That entity exists because some law tells it to exist, and tells it what to focus on, and just like we down here don’t do well getting funds from our Congress when we say “we know best” regarding the science (even when we do) – you won’t succeed either by taking a similar attitude. Yes, politics is messy, its all about relationships and not hard data, and good scientists CAN get irreparably tainted scientifically IF they get too political in their work. But if you work for the government, you do have an obligation to consider how your science fits into larger science pieces, and to function in the political world accordingly.

    But I’m just a dumb American . . . . FWIW.

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  6. Gary

    Philip, obviously this ‘rant’ is not aimed at you, so no need to get excited and defensive. I think the gaps are quite nicely described in the original post. Why not share with us how you fill those gaps. Again, if you don’t see gaps in your world “well done!” (or, “wake up!”).

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  7. Philip H

    Gary,
    I didn’t see the rant aimed at me per se, but it contains some of the things US scientists rant about to me, so that’s why I engaged. It’s also why I wrote my “hey we’re still a bureaucracy” post above – too many US agency scientists want to operate AS IF they are in academic settings when they aren’t.

    As an example, take the timing of science issue highlighted above:

    Third, ask your scientists about the time frame of their scientific studies. Most bureaucrats seem to think that, since the world was created in 7 days, scientific work ought to take no more than a year or two or perhaps three. We would like to tell you that many, perhaps most, important ecological questions involve a time frame of 10 years or more, and some require continuous funding and support for periods in excess of 50 years. You apparently did not ask medical scientists to stop working on cancer or malaria after 3 years or even 50 years, so we are uncertain why ecologists should be kept to short time frames for their research. Ecological research is perhaps the most difficult of all the sciences, so if we do not find answers in a few years it is not because we are not working hard enough.

    From where I sit, most bureaucrats (at least down here) don’t believe the world was created in 7 days, and they actually do understand that the “real” science on an ecological issue takes years to develop (if not decades), much less be able to draw conclusions that are meaningful in policy venues. The problem for those same bureaucrats (again down here) is they have to translate that decade time horizon into something that’s politically useful in an 18 month window (which is how long our House of Representatives members actually govern before turning to reelection campaigns). Government scientists actively HURT themselves when they refuse to play by those rules – onerous as they may be scientifically.

    First, science should never be organized in a top-down manner. We ecologists know about trophic cascades and the consequences it has for the lower trophic levels. You should not tell us what to do because you know nothing about the subject matter of the science, in this case ecology. I note especially that an MBA does not confer infinite wisdom on science matters. So I suggest you consider organizing things bottom-up. Your job is to provide scientists with the technical support, the funding, and the facilities to do their work. I note that this does not preclude you providing us with general areas of science in which we are expected to do our research.

    This one give me the most pause, because government agencies, by their nature, are top down creatures. Expecting them to be otherwise, and for non-science bureaucrats to change this nature, is to expect the rain to fall up. I do agree that bureaucrats shouldn’t tell scientists how to run their labs day to day (As I’ve already Written), and I would bristle if our HQ colleagues here did that to the labs I work with.

    I would also add that the part about telling scientists what general area of science to work on is what I was alluding to in my discussion of the legal framework guiding the agencies in question. Interestingly, this is the toughest question for scientists in my own agency to deal with – because we do, in fact, have regulatory responsibilities, and operational forecast ones which require us to legally work on certain science questions before we do others. Yet if you ask most of our field scientists if ours is a regulatory agency, they tell you no, and they also tell you they are not interested in working on regulatory related science unless it excites them intellectually. Since that’s not along-term practical approach to working in our type of environment, I often wonder how I as a scientist turned manager am supposed to deal with it.

    Our job is not to support the government’s policies of the day but to provide evidence about scientific questions. In general we scientists do not see government ministers crying out that they know more about brain surgery than trained doctors, so we think the same attitude ought to be taken toward ecologists.

    One of the key differences of the bureaucrat’s approach to the issue and the scientist’s is highlighted here. The bureaucrat can be (and often is) fired for not supporting the Administration’s official opposition. And to a certain extent the absolute line our author seeks to draw here ill serves science. Again, the science questions government scientists are asked to work on do, generally relate to the policies of a given Administration, and failure by the scientists to acknowledge that hinders the success of the science in being used for advocacy of the scientifically supported position in political and policy arenas. Frankly, for government-employed scientists to pretend their science is not used politically is naive intellectual folly.

    Finally, ask your scientists to publish in national and international journals because that is the corner stone for judging scientific progress. We do not mind having rules about rates of publication. And as a spur please fund your scientists to go to scientific meetings to present their results to the scientific world. And have them communicate to the public what they are doing and what they have found. After all the public pays, so why should they not hear about what has come of their tax dollars.

    This last point also makes me chuckle – most US federal scientists have publication clauses in their performance plans, and you can’t generally advance up the federal career ladder if you aren’t publishing. Also, attendance at science conferences (AGU, Ocean Sciences, AMS, AFS, CERF) for federal scientists is generally predicated on presenting – if you aren’t giving a paper, or facilitating a panel, or convening a session, you can’t generally go on the federal dime.

    Finally, to Petechia’s points (not already covered):

    Champion the use of Grants and Contribution agreements between government staff and universities to deliver programs and speak LOUDLY that the cutting back of these programs is not acceptable.

    This is what I now do for a living. Last year I helped put $180 Million (US) in the hands of the US university community to do cooperative science with our agency. Were that cut, believe me I’d be howling as publicly as I can.

    Reply

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