Academic Freedom and International Collaborations

Working in the Arctic is hard. Despite climate warming, despite diminishing ice cover, despite public interest and global impact, it is still a hostile and challenging place. It is also very expensive to get to. It usually takes me 2-4 days to travel from Delaware to the ship at Thule, Greenland. An icebreaker costs anywhere between $45,000 and $95,000 per day to operate. Last year’s recovery of scientific instrumentation and a survey of the oceanography of Nares Strait and Petermann Fjord used 8 days or almost $500,000 in ship time alone.

CCGS Henry Larsen at the entrance to Petermann Fjord in August 2012 adjacent to the 2012 Petermann Ice Island. [Photo Credit: Jon Poole and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

CCGS Henry Larsen at the entrance to Petermann Fjord in August 2012 adjacent to the 2012 Petermann Ice Island. [Photo Credit: Jon Poole and Canadian Coast Guard Ship Henry Larsen]

These large costs are best shared among different institutions and many countries, but they can be difficult to justify at times of shrinking economies and pressing needs to balance budgets. Personally, I feel strongly that these costs are justified if (a) the data, technology, or other information are shared and distributed as widely and speedily as possible and if (b) the science has been evaluated and vetted thoroughly and fairly by peers to ensure that the work has both intellectual merit and broader impacts.

Drs. Humfrey Melling and Kelly Falkner working in Baffin Baffin Bay aboard the USCGC Healy in 2003. [Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Drs. Humfrey Melling and Kelly Falkner working in Baffin Baffin Bay aboard the USCGC Healy in 2003. [Photo Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

My collaborative work the last 10 years with Drs. Humfrey Melling and Kelly Falkner in Nares Strait has passed such peer review, as the U.S. National Science Foundation funded a series of joint grant proposals. Such work requires international collaborative agreements as it involves moneys, ships, and legal rights of multiple parties. In 2003 a 5-year joint project contained an 11 page short agreement. The section on data sharing and publications consisted of these two sentences:

Subject to the “Access to Information and Privacy Acts”, Project Data and any other Project-related information shall be freely available to all Parties to this Agreement and may be used, disseminated or published, by any Party, and any time. Any proposed publication that incorporates a significant amount of Project information shall be provided to the other Party prior to public dissemination.

In 2013 a 1-year joint project of smaller scope required a legal (draft) document 19 pages long. The section on data sharing and publication now consists of almost 2 pages containing language like

Any technology, data, or other information of any kind related to or arising from the Project (collectively “Information”) shall be deemed confidential and neither Party may release any such Information to others in any way whatsoever without the prior written authorization of the other Party … The obligation of the Parties herein shall survive the expiration to which this Appendix is affixed and of which it is part.

I believe this is disturbing political climate change. I feel that it threatens my Academic Freedom and potentially muzzles my ability to publish data and interpretation and talk timely on science issues of potential public interest without government interference. Canadian officials convey that this language is a new standard template to simplify and streamline all collaborations that involve Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It reminds me of last year’s chilling editorial in the pre-eminent British science magazine Nature appealing to the Canadian government to let its scientist speak freely about their science. The new draft language is excessively restrictive and potentially projects Canadian government control onto me and those I work for and with. I will propose changes to this language and hope that some of these will be accepted to further mutually beneficial exchange of information and data to the public without restrictions.

There are many such collaborations as almost all Arctic research is international and collaborative as it is expensive and hard to work in the Arctic … on so many levels. The ever-changing political climate just adds another challenge that I may very well fail, because I cannot in good conscience sign away my freedom to speak, publish, educate, learn, and share both of what I know and what I do not know. Both science and debate prosper in an atmosphere of openness that engages a wider public, but science and debate are diminished in the darkness of secrecy when only the politically correct have access.
Editorial (2012). Frozen out Nature, 483 (7387), 6-6 DOI: 10.1038/483006a

O’Hara, K. (2010). Canada must free scientists to talk to journalists Nature, 467 (7315), 501-501 DOI: 10.1038/467501a

16 responses to “Academic Freedom and International Collaborations

  1. This will seem at first to be off topic; please bear with me. But first may I congratulate you upon your candid honesty about the modern circumstances of the dedicated researcher; I am sure, in any sphere of scientific investigation.

    By pure chance, I have just finished reading The Passing of Parliament by Professor G. W. Keeton, published 1952. Let me give you a flavour by presenting the first few sentences of chapter 13 The Constitutional Problem Today.

    “The purpose of the preceding chapters has been to draw attention to the existence in Great Britain of a major constitutional problem directly affecting the future welfare of every citizen. The problem may be shortly defined as the difficulty of maintaining either any constitutional system in the real sense of the word, or any security, either of person or property, in the face of the continual and relentless encroachments of the executive.”

    Those are very prescient words; they reflect that we are all faced today with an executive that, rather than seeing their responsibility to encourage and guide; today, they see themselves in control; and as such, they become the owners of the knowledge, rather than the guardians for the rest of humanity.

    Today, the government attorney sees their responsibility to treat everyone as the enemy. I did my best to illustrate that with chapter 12 , The Responsibilities of Government, in my free PDF book, The Road Ahead from a Grass Roots Perspective, page 114:

    “In corporate law, yes, the attorney is there to protect the interests of the corporation; but it must be seen that in government, particularly where competition law comes into play, the primary responsibility has to be to encourage competition. The government attorney has a much wider responsibility – the encouragement of a successful nation.

    If the government attorney has only a view that their responsibility is to protect the government, then everyone outside the government is an enemy. That the citizen is to be held at bay and controlled; that success is to be trammelled by the idea that they must not interfere with the aiming point of the government. I would argue instead that it is the governments’ responsibility to do everything it can to encourage the success of any citizen, in their lawful pursuit of making the most of their particular talents and aspirations.”

    As I see it, this is a subject for open debate and the more we keep the matter out in the open, the sooner we will see change for the better.

    • It is also possible, that in an attempt to become more efficient at times of budget deficits, governments try to streamline their operations. The new draft language is perfectly appropriate for Classified Research with either sensitive military or proprietary commercial applications, but it does not fit the basic scientific research on subjects such as climate or the environment that we all live in. Many people who work in or for governments are sensitive and want to accommodate diverse constituents. This includes all DFO scientists and administrators that I know. Most people (self included) mean well and are imperfect. Graham Green’s “Quiet American” comes to mind, as well as the dictum that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. Dilemmas and contradictions exist.

  2. You are correct to point out that “Many people who work in or for governments are sensitive and want to accommodate diverse constituents.” No one will argue with that; but I also feel sure that they did not draft the problem rules you have highlighted. As I see it, there is a structural problem in that it only takes a very few with, what one can surely describe as the “wrong” mindset, to make things, if not impossible, certainly very difficult for everyone else.

    Those of us on the outside bear a heavy responsibility to point out the structural difficulties from our point of view; in that way, everyone inside can see there are people taking note and making their own contribution to the ongoing debate.

    I am a great believer in quiet, but strong dialogue; to tell it like it is so that those that, perhaps, did not understand the difficulties they have caused; can re-structure their thinking without any direct confrontation or unpleasantness.

    How else can they learn?

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  5. I just heard about this on the radio show “As it Happens”, on CBC this evening. As a Canadian who is becoming increasingly concerned about the way our government is handling free information, I want to say thank you for calling them out on the ludicrous muzzling of scientists that has become commonplace. I hope INTERnational shame will keep Harper and his cronies in line until we can vote in someone reasonable, because when Canadians have cried out against changes to policy like this, it seems there is nobody listening.

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