Most government scientists in British Columbia who answered a survey about their work say they don’t have enough resources to properly do their jobs.
A report released Thursday by Ottawa-based Evidence for Democracy heard from 403 government scientists, a 35-per-cent response rate from 1,159 employees polled across B.C.’s ministries in November last year.
Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said they weren’t able to enforce the mandate of their department be it in environment, mines or forestry, the survey found.
Katie Gibbs, one of the authors of Oversight at Risk: The state of government science in British Columbia said in a telephone interview that her organization chose B.C. as the first site of a provincial survey because it had heard complaints about a shrinking number of science professionals in the public service.
“What really came out in the report is drastic cuts to capacity and the impact that has on government scientists being able to do their jobs,” said Gibbs, who previously wrote a 2014 report on the muzzling of federal scientists under the former Conservative government.
The B.C. report says there has been a 25-per-cent cut in the number of scientists and licensed-experts — professional foresters, for instance — working for the province over the last decade.
Instead, the government has turned to outside professionals to do much of the research and monitoring once done in-house, it says.
Role of external contractors expanded
Scott McCannell is the executive director of the Professional Employees Association, a union representing engineers, geo-scientists, professional foresters and agrologists in B.C.’s public service. The association helped fund the study and distributed surveys to its members.
McCannell says not only do external contractors have a bigger role in government, ministries don't have enough staff to double check the information they provide.
“If the government is relying on outside professionals, there has be oversight and due diligence on the work they’re carrying out. And in many cases because of the legislative changes that the Liberal government introduced here in British Columbia, there really isn’t capacity to question or call out the work that outside professionals are providing.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the B.C. Public Service Agency said it values the contributions of its scientists adding, “As a government, we work hard to make sure our employees have the right resources to be able to do their jobs well.”
It says the ratio of PEA workers has remained at about four per cent of the government’s total workforce over the last decade.
The number of professionals it employs depend on need, says the statement. “This ensures government employs the resources it needs and taxpayers receive the best value for their money.”
An earlier assessment of B.C.’s civil service also found that staff relied too heavily on outside consultants.
Earlier assessments have noted the same problem. B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer investigated compliance and enforcement in the province’s mining sector and found them lacking. Her report released in May 2016 report followed a disastrous spill of 25 million cubic metres of wastewater and tailings into waterways near the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in central British Columbia. She concluded that the Ministry of Energy and Mines relied on external experts to confirm the tailings pond was properly built — which it was not.
Evidence for Democracy is a non-profit organization founded in 2013 largely in response to concerns about declining freedom among federal scientists. It promotes the use of evidence in government decision-making and it intends to look at other provinces in future research, likely Alberta.
Other key findings:
- 71 per cent of respondents said they have seen a decrease in research capacity during their careers
- 59 per cent think that has reduced environmental research or regulation
- 32 per cent say they cannot speak to the media about their research
- 57 per cent say government’s increased reliance on outside staff is compromising their ability to use the best available evidence to make a decision
- 49 per cent think said political interference reduces their department’s ability to create policies and programs based on scientific evidence