Publish date: Wednesday, April 05, 2017
For years, the Professional Employees Association (PEA) has warned that ongoing cutbacks in the number of qualified professional scientists employed by the provincial government is a threat to British Columbia’s natural resources and environment and the safety of our infrastructure. A new assessment by an Ottawa-based research group has confirmed our fears.
In a report released this week where our GLP members were surveyed, Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making in Canada, stated that science staff cutbacks in B.C. impede the government’s ability to fulfil its responsibility for regulatory oversight.
The researchers pointed out that since 2001, when the Liberal government was elected, B.C.’s public service has been reduced to the smallest per capita in Canada. Departments with science-based mandates have been particularly hard hit with a 25 per cent reduction in staff-scientists and licensed-expert positions in the past decade.
E4D found that a strong majority (71 per cent) of B.C. government scientists surveyed believe that cutbacks since 2001 have negatively impacted their ability to produce expert reports and documents.
Most (59 per cent) also believe the cutbacks negatively impact environmental research and regulation, and even more (68 per cent) feel that there are now insufficient resources to effectively fulfill their branch or ministerial mandate.
Equally alarming is that almost half (49 per cent) feel that political interference is compromising their ministry’s ability to develop laws, policies and programs based on scientific evidence, and only 48 per cent feel free to share their research findings with the public via the media.
Every British Columbian should be concerned by these findings because it goes far deeper than just a cut in public service jobs. These Government Licensed Science Officers (GLSOs) are professionally trained and accredited experts and scientists including foresters, engineers, agrologists, geoscientists, veterinarians, psychologists, physiotherapists and pharmacists.
They provide the provincial government with advice, guidance, research, monitoring and review services to help ensure the efficient and effective management, utilization and oversight of B.C.’s natural resources, infrastructure, food and water resources and some aspects of health care services.
GLSOs are often the first-line stewards of B.C.’s natural resources and environment, and monitor the safety of key infrastructure such as bridges and dams. Reducing their numbers is a threat to our natural resource-dependent economy, the environment and to the well-being of all our citizens.
The cutbacks mean that much of the work these experts and scientists were doing has been reduced, discontinued or contracted out to the private sector – and the consequences can be dire as evidenced by the Mt. Polley mine disaster in 2014. A subsequent report by the Auditor General pointed to the lack of a compliance and enforcement culture within the Ministry of Energy and Mines, an overreliance on external qualified professionals, and subsequent lack of oversight, and too few annual inspections by the Ministry.
We need to avoid the next Mt. 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.
The E4D report makes several recommendations to do just that including increased public service research capacity, increased transparency and accountability around the use of external contractors, clear guidelines for government scientists to adequately oversee and analyze the tasks outsourced to qualified professionals, and science-specific communications policies to provide guidance for communications with the media, the public, and other researchers.
We are living in a time where science and scientific research are more important than ever to help us protect the environment, steward our natural resources and protect our citizens by ensuring that our infrastructure is safe and our farms produce healthy food. That’s what Government Licenced Science Officers do. Losing them puts us all at risk.
Scott McCannell is the executive director of the Professional Employees Association, a trade union representing science officers in the BC public service.