: Blog

Testimony re Bill C-36, An Act to amend the Statistics Act

INDU

Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology

Meeting No. 56

Tuesday, April 11, 2017, 8:45 a.m. to 10:45 a.m.

Witnesses:

 Our Right to Know

  • Margrit Eichler, President

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

  • Paul Schreyer, Deputy Director, Statistics Directorate (by videoconference: Paris, France)

Statistical Society of Canada

  • Brian Allen, Past-President

As an individual

  • Jean-Guy Prévost, Director, Political Science Department, Université du Québec à Montréal

Speaking Notes by Margrit Eichler, President, Our Right to Know

Thank you for inviting me to speak before you. Permit me to briefly introduce myself. I am a retired Professor of Sociology and Equity Studies. I taught at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto until 2011. I am here in my capacity as President of Our Right to Know. We are a registered advocacy group with the mandate to advocate for the free conduct, communication, publication and archiving of research. Our slogan is “Public Science for the Public Good”. The major data gathering institution in Canada is Statistics Canada. The well-being of Stats Can is therefore close to our hearts.

Although there are a number of issues that could be addressed, I will restrict myself to only one point – the relationship between Statistics Canada and Shared Services Canada.

When we learned that the former Chief Statistician had resigned in protest over the lack of independence of Statistics Canada, we contacted him to learn more. While I have never met Mr. Smith face-to-face, there have been many written and oral exchanges. What we learned from these alarmed us. We then contacted a number of experts to compare their view of the situation with that of Mr. Smith’s. We found no reason to doubt his integrity and veracity.

The Minister, in his remarks during the debate in the second reading of Bill C-36 made it clear that high quality data are needed to be able to make informed policy decisions. He makes a strong and convincing case that this requires independence of the national statistical service. If passed the bill will increase the political independence of Statistics Canada.

We strongly applaud the intent of the bill on this count.

However, given such clearly stated intent it is puzzling that there is no assurance of administrative independence.

Imagine that you were the chef for a huge gala dinner for hundreds of people. The contract has been signed. The overall framework has been agreed upon – the menu has been decided, serving times have been set, sou-chefs will be hired – and then you find out that there is an unanticipated wrinkle: There is a housemaster who will determine which and how many pots you can use at what time, how many burners you may use at what time, and how many and which sou-chefs you may hire. In other words, you realize that you would be in a position of responsibility without the authority to make sure the menu can be served as planned. At this point, you would probably tell your employer to cook the meal himself.

While Statistics Canada’s job is infinitely more important and complicated than creating a gala dinner, however splendid it may be, the agency does find itself in a similar situation: Bill C-36 says:

(5) the Chief Statistician shall ….

(a) decide, based strictly on professional statistical standards that he or she considers appropriate, the methods and procedures for carrying out statistical programs …

[and]

(c) control the operations and staff of Statistics Canada.

However, according to Wayne Smith, Shared Services Canada “has complete control of the critical informatics infrastructure supporting Statistics Canada.” This amounts to an effective veto power on the part of Service Canada over “any project, program or initiative of Statistics Canada that requires modifications to informatics infrastructure, and, in the world of official statistics, any significant change does.”[1]

What are the consequences of this arrangement?

  • Delays of major transformational projects, e.g. the Integrated Collection Operations System and the Integrated Business Statistics Platform
  • An unwieldy, user-unfriendly website
  • Idling project teams
  • Delays in delivering needed hardware, problems in maintaining aging equipment
  • Cost estimates disconnected from reality
  • Unnecessary financial difficulties

In other words, for a statistical agency where a primary objective is the production and dissemination of data and information, Service Canada is an inefficient system. It does not allow Statistics Canada to operate at a peak level of performance. It wastes human and financial resources.

We consulted with my former classmate and distinguished CRC Chair Monica Boyd. She is an expert user of Statistics Canada data, and has been seconded 3 times to Stats Can on a visiting Senior Fellow basis.  She described to us three of the recent problems associated with the shift to the Service Canada platform:

  • It has become very difficult to find information
  • How issues are arranged is not always logical
  • Posting of information that normally was routine now appears to be erratic. Recently, a major set of analytical papers produced at Statistics Canada could not be accessed for two weeks.

She considers the relationship between SSC and Stats Can as a “cancer that is slowly affecting the entire system.”

We argue that this is probably due to the fact that Statistics Canada has a different structure and a different logic than the other departments that are serviced by SSC. Most departments deliver programs and services, Stats Can delivers data and analyses. We also want to mention that we are not aware of any other national statistical service in a developed nation that does not grant administrative independence to its statistical service.

To pass the legislation without at the same time removing Statistics Canada from under the control of Shared Services Canada creates a serious set of problems which cannot but hurt what we all want: a truly independent Statistics Canada.

We therefore strongly recommend that complete authority to run its own operations be returned to Statistics Canada in order to enable it to fulfill its duties as outlined in bill C-36.

[1] From a blog written at the request of ORK https://ourrighttoknow.ca/caught-in-the-iron-cage-of-bureaucracy-why-i-resigned-as-chief-statistician-of-canada/

Caught in the ‘Iron Cage of Bureaucracy’: Why I Resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada

 

By Wayne Smith, Nov 2 2016

In 2011, Statistics Canada was put into an ‘iron cage of bureaucracy’,[1] severely hampering its capacity to fulfill its mandate. The cage – Shared Services Canada (SSC) was created on August 4, 2011, to transform how the Government of Canada manages its information technology infrastructure.  Statistics Canada was required to transfer to SSC all of its data centre, networking, telecommunications and e-mail infrastructure, the corresponding budget and staff directly connected to these functions, and a proportion of its internal services budget to support those functions.  Statistics Canada had no meaningful opportunity to challenge this decision prior to its implementation.  Statistics Canada was stripped of the authority to deliver informatics infrastructure and telecommunications services itself or to contract to third parties for these services.  SSC is therefore an absolute monopoly with respect to the supply of these services to Statistics Canada. Shared Services Canada’s management, however, has no competence in matters of official statistics.

After several years of trying to make the new arrangement work, on August 3, 2016, I wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressing my grave concern over the impact of Shared Services Canada on the independence of Statistics Canada, on Statistics Canada’s ability to protect the confidentiality of respondent information to the level required by the Statistics Act, and on the ability of Statistics Canada to operate effectively and efficiently.  I noted that this was inconsistent with the current government’s public commitment to act so as to reinforce the independence of Statistics Canada.  I advised the Prime Minister that, in the absence of any resolution to the issues raised, I would resign as Chief Statistician of Canada on September 17, 2016 in order to call public attention to my concerns.

This note explains the reasoning behind my letter to the Prime Minister and my determination to either resolve the issues or resign.  It draws on previous writings during my tenure as Chief Statistician of Canada and my letter to the Prime Minister.

Independence of national statistical offices and the need to protect confidentiality of respondent information

First, some background on the notion of the need for independence of national statistical offices and their obligation to protect the confidentiality of respondent information collected for statistical purposes.

The notion of independence as applied to national statistical offices has been developed by international organizations notably, with Canada’s endorsement, by the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  The UN addressed the issue in its Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics adopted by the General Assembly, in resolution 68/261 of 29 January 2014.  In its second principle, the UN wrote:

To retain trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data.

The OECD in its Recommendation of the Council on Good Statistical Practice, adopted by the Council of Ministers on November 23, 2015 and binding on Canada, recommended that members should:

Ensure professional independence of National Statistical Authorities. To this end, Adherents should ensure that the National Statistical Authorities:

  1. i)     are professionally independent from other policy, regulatory or administrative departments and bodies, as well as from private sector operators, considering that professional independence of the producers of official statistics is essential for the production and the dissemination of objective statistics;
  2. ii)   have the exclusive authority, as part of their professional independence, to decide on statistical methods and dissemination;

iii)   are protected, through the inclusion of explicit provisions in statistics legislation, from political and other interference in developing, compiling and disseminating official statistics.

These provisions of the UN and OECD documents are broadly respected in the legislation and practice of developed countries with the unusual exception of Canada, which is otherwise considered a world leader in official statistics.

Both the UN and OECD have also addressed the importance of the confidentiality of information provided to the national statistical office by individuals, businesses and other organizations for statistical purposes.

The UN Fundamental Principles state:

Individual data collected by statistical agencies for statistical compilation, whether they refer to natural or legal persons, are to be strictly confidential and used exclusively for statistical purposes.

The OECD Recommendation echoes this viewpoint, recommending that members:

Protect the privacy of data providers (including individuals, households, enterprises, administrations, and all levels of government) and guarantee by law the confidentiality of the individual information provided and its use for statistical purposes only.

Canada’s Statistics Act is exemplary in its protection of the confidentiality of respondent data.  The provisions of the Act limit access to confidential data to sworn employees of Statistics Canada.  Section 6 requires employees to take an oath to respect the provisions of the Act. Section 17 makes confidential data holdings secret from anyone who is not an employee. Section 18 limits the use of confidential data to statistical purposes and explicitly prohibits access by courts and police.  It provides inter alia that:

No person sworn under section 6 shall by an order of any court, tribunal or other body be required in any proceedings whatever to give oral testimony or to produce any return, document or record with respect to any information obtained in the course of administering this Act.

Finally, Section 34 makes disclosure of confidential information by an employee a criminal offence punishable by fines and imprisonment.

 

The role of informatics in official statistics and international precedent.

 

Second, let’s consider the importance of informatics and telecommunications infrastructure to a national statistical office, and international precedents for arrangements like Shared Services Canada.

Modern statistical offices are critically dependent on informatics to carry out their operations.  Every phase of the statistical process is an application of informatics, from drawing samples, to data collection (internet questionnaires, computer assisted telephone interviewing, computer assisted personal interviewing), to data capture (optical character recognition), to coding and classification (automated coding), to processing, estimation and weighting, to confidentiality control, to analysis (modeling, projections, simulation), to dissemination (web sites).  A statistical office is, in effect, an exercise in applied informatics that depends for its effectiveness on timely, reliable, affordable and effective supply of informatics services.  Modern statistical offices are in constant evolution to increase their efficiency and effectiveness, as well as to respond to the evolving and emerging information needs of data users and stakeholders.  Responsive informatics support is critical.  Anyone who can control the supply of informatics services to a modern statistical office, effectively controls that office and its programs.

I am not aware of any developed country where the national statistical office has been stripped of all authority over its informatics and telecommunications infrastructure. There are two relevant instances I know of where a proposal was made to include the national statistical office in a centralized informatics initiative, the United Kingdom and Australia. In both, after consideration of the imperative of the independence of the national statistical office and of guarantees of the confidentiality of respondent data, the national statistical offices were appropriately exempted from inclusion in the centralization initiative.

Even in Canada, there are precedents that would support exclusion of Statistics Canada from mandatory participation in the Shared Services Canada initiative.  On January 13, 2016, the Courts Administration Service and the Registrar of the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing their need for independence and confidentiality, were granted an exemption from mandatory use of Shared Services Canada by Order in Council.  Agents of Parliament, such as the Auditor General, Official Languages Commissioner, and the Privacy Commissioner, were exempted from the inception of Shared Services Canada from mandatory use of that department’s services, presumably also for reasons of independence

Assessment of the impact of Shared Services Canada on Statistics Canada’s programs

In my letter to the Prime Minister, I noted that, despite the government’s public commitment to further protect the independence of Statistics Canada, that independence had never been more thoroughly compromised than it is at present as a result of Statistics Canada’s forced integration into the Shared Services Canada initiative.  Shared Services Canada now has complete control of the critical informatics infrastructure supporting Statistics Canada.  No significant change to Statistics Canada’s programs or methods can be made without Shared Services Canada’s concurrence, which is not guaranteed.  The bizarre governance around Shared Services Canada creates no obligation on SSC to provide Statistics Canada with any level or extent of support, and creates no accountability to Statistics Canada for any adverse effects of its actions.

If Shared Services Canada refuses or fails to provide an essential service, Statistics Canada has no recourse of any kind and is prohibited from seeking other suppliers or provide the service to itself, even though it is amply capable of doing so.  As a result, Shared Services Canada has an effective veto over any project, program or initiative of Statistics Canada that requires modifications to informatics infrastructure, and, in the world of official statistics, any significant change does.  This is not independence.

I also observed to the Prime Minister that Canada’s Statistics Act provides strong protection for the confidentiality of information obtained by Statistics Canada from Canadians and their institutions for statistical purposes.  Under the Act, this protection is not only from actors outside the federal government, but from all other elements of the federal government itself, including CSEC, CSIS and the RCMP.  Under the provisions of the Act, Shared Services Canada should not be engaged in the management of confidential data unless the necessary staff have been ‘deemed’ to be employees of Statistics Canada by the Chief Statistician, and they should not be ‘deemed’ unless Statistics Canada has meaningful supervision of their activities while they are engaged in the management of these files. While initially I accommodated the involvement of Shared Services Canada employees in the hope that a reasonable governance would eventually be established—one that provided for meaningful supervision by Statistics Canada—at the time of my letter to the Prime Minister I had concluded this would never be the case.  As a result, it was my conclusion that Shared Services Canada’s involvement in the management of confidential data obtained under the Statistics Act is inconsistent with the confidentiality provisions of Act and should cease.

My final observation to the Prime Minister was that the concerns raised were more than academic.  Statistics Canada, at the months preceding my resignation, was being hobbled by the poor quality and high cost of the services provided by Shared Services Canada.  To operate effectively and efficiently, Statistics Canada requires what it long had when it managed its own informatics infrastructure: seamless, effective, efficient, timely and affordable supply.  Instead, even trivial decisions were finding Statistics Canada managers locked in endless discussions with phalanxes of Shared Services Canada managers, where reaching an agreement was no guarantee of actual performance of the agreed action.

Major transformational projects were being delayed by the failure of Shared Services Canada to provide the necessary infrastructure in useful time, pushing off implementation dates, idling project teams and forcing expensive work arounds.   A planned redesign of Statistics Canada’s web site in time for dissemination of 2016 Census results was compromised due to SSC’s failure to supply the physical hardware in time, despite repeated senior meetings to confirm this would occur and reassurances that the necessary timeframes would be met.  Other examples of significant delays of transformational projects include the Integrated Collection Operations System (intended to completely overhaul the way Statistics Canada manages and conducts its survey collection to increase effectiveness and reduce costs) and the Integrated Business Statistics Platform (designed to increase the coherence of business statistics while reducing processing costs).

Repeated demands were being received from Shared Services Canada for transfer of funds to pay for things for which funds had already been transferred or otherwise provided, or that were the clear responsibility of Shared Services Canada.  Cost estimates were often disconnected from any reality, draining program budgets and risking cuts to statistical programs in order acquire necessary infrastructure.  During my tenure, Shared Services Canada made unilateral decisions that put Statistics Canada’s programs and operation at high risk by, for example: failing to properly maintain the principal data centre on which Statistics Canada relies; cancelling service contracts for aging equipment, contracts needed to ensure rapid repair should key equipment fail; failing to maintain capacity in line with operational requirements; and glacial response times when Statistics Canada did agree to pay a second time for critical equipment.

Statistics Canada’s management would never historically, have tolerated the level of risk of a protracted failure of mission critical programs that is now being unilaterally imposed on it by Shared Services Canada.  In the final months of my tenure, Statistics Canada was experiencing an increasing frequency and severity of incidents affecting its operations and the quality and accessibility of its data.  This at a time when the government is asking for innovation and ever more data, and particularly more timely and granular data.  The illogic of demanding more from an organization while undermining its ability to respond to those demands is obvious.  I advised the Prime Minister that the ability of Statistics Canada to operate was at risk and that its stature as a world leading statistical office would eventually be compromised unless the situation changed.

Resignation

Absent any meaningful response to these concerns and issues, I resigned as Chief Statistician of Canada on September 17, 2016.  My purpose in doing so was to call public attention to a situation compromising the independence of Statistics Canada and its ability to protect the confidentiality of its information holdings to the level required by the Statistics Act and undermining its ability to operate efficiently and effectively in service to Canadians.

 

 

 

[1] This term was coined by Max Weber about 100 years ago. He was concerned about the rise of bureaucracy and the problems that this might create.

FREEING CHARITIES: LEGISLATIVE REFORM IS THE ONLY PATH FORWARD

By Tim Gray, Executive Director environmental defence, Oct 21 2016

Charities in Canada play a critical role. Canadians look to environmental, health, international development and social justice organizations to collectively express their views and advocate for a better world.

Improvements on issues as diverse as ending acid rain, drastically reducing drinking and driving, and ending smoking in schools and the workplace all were the result of these organizations working to bring public and government attention to key issues that required policy change or development. Most of these organizations are charities and rely on public support for their survival.

Several years ago, the previous federal government launched a series of high profile attacks on environmental, social justice and international development charities that expressed opinions contrary to that of the government. The media, public, opposition leaders and many MPs, including now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, decried these attacks and committed to end them and to reform Canadian law to ensure charities could speak out.

Do you want to ensure charities can voice the concerns of Canadians? Sign the petition and tell the federal government you value charities’ involvement in creating a better Canadian society and want to see new laws created that strengthen this role.

A new direction to protect and enhance this critical role for charities was reflected strongly last year in the Prime Minister’s mandate letter to the Minister of National Revenue, when he instructed the Minister to undertake reforms to “allow charities to do their work on behalf of Canadians free from political harassment, and modernize the rules governing the charitable and not-for-profit sectors.” The letter continues with a requirement that this should result in a “new legislative framework” to strengthen the sector.

Fast forward to just weeks ago, when Minister of National Revenue Diane Lebouthillier announced the start of a two month, Canada-wide consultation with charities and the public on the rules under which charities should be allowed to speak out in Canadian society.

In a press conference launching the consultation, Minister Lebouthillier remarked on “the critical role charities play in Canadian society and on her commitment to “working in collaboration with charities to maintain a fair system that respects and encourages their essential contribution.”

These were encouraging words because the ability of Canadian charities to participate in shaping public policy is vital for a healthy democracy. Engaging in non-partisan political activity should be a right of all charities in Canada. Sadly, it is now constrained by archaic rules and arbitrary guidelines. This must change.

To be clear, political activity does not refer to supporting a particular political candidate or party but rather advocating for positive change. Many of the improvements that we have in Canadian society – such as strengthening anti-drinking and driving laws, banning smoking from schools and workplaces, and banning chemicals that put holes in the ozone layer – have been created through the efforts of charities and their involvement in public policy work. Canada without the results of charities’ work would not be recognizable to most of us.

The outcome of the Minister’s review must ensure that all charities are encouraged and enabled to participate in public discussions of key issues related to ending poverty, protecting the environment, ensuring equality, and securing a better future for our citizens.

The consultation must result in achieving what the Prime Minister’s mandate letter calls for – a new legislative framework.

We need new laws to protect these rights and we need you to raise your voice to make sure those that want to slow progress do not dissuade or discourage our federal government from acting.

Between now and Nov 25th, the Minister is asking Canadians to provide feedback on the rules governing charities’ abilities to speak out about social change. Sign the petition or better yet email the CRA today atconsultation-policy-politique@cra-arc.gc.ca and tell the CRA you value the role charities play in securing public policies that improve the lives of all Canadians.

Citizen Science through the Internet

by Geraldine Lindley, August 2016

I have had a busy time as a citizen scientist lately – counting penguin chicks in Antarctica, and listening to bat calls in warmer climes – all from the comfort of my armchair with cup of tea in hand!

A while ago I blogged enthusiastically about two citizen science experiences working side by side with researchers in the field (i.e. on Nova Scotia and St. Croix beaches). In this blog I wish to talk about a different approach – using the web as a means to participate.

To explain the participation of citizen scientists in on-line data analysis, I have chosen Zooniverse (www.zooniverse.org) as a significant example – a citizen science web portal of the Citizen Science Alliance which is governed by a board of directors from various U.S. and U.K. institutions (www.citizensciencealliance.org). I registered on-line and, as a volunteer “Zooite”, had my pick of a selection of crowd sourced scientific research projects. A research and conservation project on penguins (Penguin Watch) enticed me to view images from a remote camera set up on the Antarctic Peninsula.

Although my interests focus on nature projects (and more specifically it seems, nature projects on beaches), interested citizen scientists can select projects from several general categories. When accessed on March 28, 2016, there were 46 active projects: for example, the Natural World category provides the opportunity to (over 18,000 currently active) volunteers to identify animals from trail camera photos in Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. This category also has a climatology project that helps predict future storm behaviour by analyzing patterns in satellite images. Space projects may have the keen citizen scientist viewing images from far away galaxies; under Humanities, one might get involved in transcribing museum reports (Notes from Nature), or reading war diaries (Operation War Diary). Perhaps of great attraction to many young citizen scientists is the Worm Watch Lab (Biology and physics category) where one can watch videos of nematode worm behaviour to help researchers understand puzzling genetic questions.

Images of wildlife, galaxies, and historical records are just a few of the fascinating discoveries available to the curious after a bit of on-line training. As a citizen scientist one can also join discussion boards for conversation with researchers and fellow volunteers,; and access published articles resulting from research projects.

Citizen Science Alliance states that involving the public in online citizen science projects is essential to cope with the copious amount of data researchers have to deal with – and that “in its first six months Galaxy Zoo provided the same number of classifications as would a graduate student working round the clock for 3.5 years”! I also found it refreshing to read that our brains are still better than computers in ways such as pattern recognition, and the ability to be surprised by the odd; and that indeed, the large citizen science data sets can be useful in training machines to learn. (http://www.citizensciencealliance.org/philosophy.html)

Reflecting upon my limited experience in the realm of citizen science, I thought not only about my fascination with the complexities of nature and my satisfaction in contributing to building scientific knowledge, but I also thought about the larger implications for society. In a general way (without debating the merits of particular research), it may be stating the obvious to say that facilitating scientific research (some of which would likely not be accomplished otherwise due to resource constraints) is beneficial to society.

But a less obvious potential benefit of citizen science participation comes to mind. Could we also be building mutual understanding between citizens and scientists, thus furthering the understanding of research in a broader context? In 1990, in her article Reflections on Science and the Citizen, well-known scientist and social activist Ursula Franklin stated that building this relationship between citizens and scientists a key task for the future. She explained that the scientific method, in its “emphasis on abstract knowledge over concrete experience…has drastically lessened the confidence of people in the astuteness of their own senses.” (Franklin, pg 315) She further identified the problem of undervaluing direct experience as a source of knowledge in favour of scientific experts. Dr. Franklin believed that these two factors “greatly impeded’ the “participation of concerned citizens in political decisions with significant technological or scientific components”. (Franklin, pg 316). However, through working with citizen groups she believed that having ”a strong motivation, a confidence in their own common sense, and a non-competitive atmosphere in which participants are both teachers and learners” provided a base for developing scientific knowledge and becoming “responsible citizen scientists”. (Franklin, pg 316). Thus, these concluding thoughts on citizen science have broadened my perspective of its contribution to the public good.

References

Franklin, U. (2006). The Ursula Franklin reader – pacifism as a map. Toronto, Ontario: Between the Lines

Why Whistleblowers need Protection

by Sue Kralik, Secretary of ORK

 

 

June 3, 2016

 

 

The muzzling of public scientists during the Harper years should serve as a cautionary tale against assuming that scientists will be free to enable public science to serve the public good.  Canadian public scientists are at the mercy of the government in any efforts to ensure that society is well served by science.  International interests have a social and political agenda when it comes to science and standing up to their agenda is a daunting task few are willing or able to undertake. Whistleblowers are aware that revealing malfeasance or injurious tactics on the part of their employers can have catastrophic consequences frequently involving loss of employment, family and home. Deterioration of mental and physical health often results.  Their reputations can be irredeemably besmirched by a savvy employer who is thereby able to cast doubt on the validity of their claims.  Even if whistleblower legislation is in effect, the employee can be isolated, moved to a distant and smaller office, shunned by their colleagues, assigned tasks for which they are unqualified and eventually fired after receiving negative reviews.

Technically, therefore, they are not fired for whistleblowing and they have no recourse for restitution.

It follows that very few revelations will occur and, in the case of civil servants, public science may well suffer as a result.

The stories of whistleblowers who have plunged into the murky world of attempting to right wrongs have a common focus: in very few cases does the whistleblower survive the experience intact. One could question why anyone would risk such a venture.  In most cases, the explanation is the same. The whistleblowers could not remain silent when they saw the damage that was occurring. After experiencing the consequences of revelation, many admit they would not have proceeded had they known how they would be treated. Some maintain they would do so again if faced with that choice. Heroic they are but it begs the question as to why they need to face the situation unsupported and unprotected.

It was to serve this need in the United States that PEER (Public Employees for Environment Responsibility), an NGO, was formed in 1996. It operates primarily to investigate claims from public employees about environmental misconduct on the part of the government. Because employees who blow the whistle on offending agencies are often faced with retaliation, PEER encourages them to work through its organization in reporting government misdeeds. PEER investigates claims once they are made, often using the Freedom of Information Act, and then determines what actions it should take. These can include press releases or lawsuits and providing legal services to whistleblowers who have become targets of retaliation.

According to a Wikipedia report, PEER has conducted a number of campaigns including EPA library closings, Arctic drilling debate, and genetically engineered crops.  In 2006, PEER learned of the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency’s network of technical libraries, an important resource for research, without Congressional approval. However, even after bringing this to the attention of Congress followed by Congress’ recent order to reopen the libraries, the EPA continues to limit and remove library resources. In its campaign on Arctic drilling, PEER has used emails and documents from current and former Interior scientists challenging the integrity of the environmental assessments of Arctic offshore oil development to fuel lawsuits.

The strength of PEER’s support lies in the fact that the whistleblower is encouraged to act through the organization, a procedure that greatly reduces the vulnerability associated with individual claims. The organization determines the course of action to take, and as a result, much of the fear of alienation that can occur when an employee is shunned by his/her colleagues is removed. Nevertheless, even with the efforts of an organization, the success rate is limited.  How much more unlikely it seems, therefore, that an individual, working is isolation, will be able to achieve positive results.

 

According to the article, The Neglected State of Whistleblower Laws in Canada, posted in Civil Litigation on Friday, November 13, 2015, Canada lags far behind the United States in whistleblower protection laws. Since the adoption of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, protections have expanded for U.S. federal public sector employees and most U.S. states now have legislation intended to protect public employees. By contrast, Canadian courts “have done little to protect whistleblowers.”  The article refers to Fraser v. P.S.S.R.B. 1985 in exposing how increased loyalty to the government in power by public servants was expected and made it obligatory to exhaust all internal mechanisms of pointing out the wrongdoing, a provision that would seem to make the whistleblower vulnerable to retaliation. In addition, according to the article, the Canada Revenue Agency is the only Canadian organization that has provisions to reward whistleblowers and so far, no payment has been made. Another shortcoming includes the lack of guarantee of confidentiality and no offer of leniency.

With such fragile supports in place, it seems unlikely that whistleblowers in the Canadian public service will feel empowered to expose harmful policies adopted by the government. For the sake of our health, now and in the future, we need to press this issue with our political representatives. Public science for the public good requires our support.

The Conflict of Interest Movement in Medicine. Part 2: Influence and Education

The Conflict of Interest Movement in Medicine. Part 2: Influence and Education

A Conversation between Harriet Rosenberg and Adrienne Shnier

May 18, 2016

 

HR: Your research also looks at financial conflicts of interest in Continuing Medical Education (CME) for practicing physicians.

AS: There are about 60 Canadian Professional Medical Association (PMAs) that host continuing professional education for doctors. We found their policies to be generally weak and they leave plenty of room for industry involvement. For example, a pharmaceutical company might co-sponsor an event with a professional association, or a speaker at an event might have financial conflicts of interest that are not declared—so industry presence is not always apparent to the audience. It is also the case that the presence of industry is viewed as so normal that it may be rare for doctors to ask questions about industry influence at these events billed as “education.”

We know that prescriptions for brand-name drugs increase after educational events at “hot destinations” —at vacation locations that are paid for by drug companies.

So doctors tend not to learn much about how to detect conflicts of interest in medical schools or what this might mean for their practice of medicine—yet when they are practicing physicians—they seem to assume that they are aware of industry presence and are not influenced by it. There is research that shows that they think that their colleagues may be influenced by financial conflicts, but they are not (see here, here and here).

HR: There have been attempts to make these industry payments to physicians more transparent. In Canada, at present the situation is moving towards voluntary disclosures by drug companies of what they pay to physicians.

But in the US things are different.

AS: The United States Physician Payment Sunshine Act (PPSA) was the first government-pursued and country-wide initiative to systematically identify and document for public access the financial relationships between medical professionals and the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Alongside the PPSA, a group of US-based investigative journalists at ProPublica also created a database of financial interest disclosures that are publicly accessible.

HR: The influence of industry also extends to clinical practice guidelines from Canadian professional medical associations. These guide doctors in their prescribing habits and probably the public assumes that there are stringent standards to avoid conflicts of interest among the panels and the associations that write these guidelines.

In the US, there have been controversies over guideline writing panel members failing to make clear their financial connections to industry.

AS: The Institute of Medicine in the US (IOM) has recognized this and has provided recommendations in response to the nondisclosure of fCOIs in clinical practice guidelines in the US, and this problem is mirrored in Canada.

HR: This is very disconcerting—the omnipresence of industry in all these areas—from medical school, to clinical trials and journals, to continuing medical education, to clinical practice guidelines.

AS: It is not surprising considering the trend toward privatization, deregulation and belief in market authority for the regulation of information. This has contributed to an environment that is pro-commercial where medical information—medical knowledge—is now proprietary—it is viewed as a product in a deregulated regime.

HR: This is very different from our assumptions about science, especially medical science, which we think of as a public service. The neo-liberal win-win philosophy of public-private partnerships in medicine can, it seems, in practice, mean the domination of private, vested interests at the expense of the public interest and patient safety.

AS: Yes, this is about the commodification of science and the argument that science should be conducted for profit. There has been a structural shift in the way that medical research is being both considered and conducted and that is why looking at conflict of interest policies is so important.

HR: The prevalence of financial conflicts of interest in medicine would not be possible without a culture within the medical profession accepting this as normal—that is the belief that it is fine for scientific inquiry to originate with industry—okay that industry poses the research questions, does the research, analyzes the data, writes about the benefits and harms of its own products and partners in the education of doctors about these products.

AS: There are some that do not see this situation as conflict of interest at all—who do not feel that relationships with industry should be regulated at all. The study of fCOI relationships is a very contested area. There are attacks on the conflict of interest movement, but the movement has gained ground in Canada and around the world.

There is a push for disclosure of relationships with industry but at the same time many regard financial ties to industry as a sign of prestige. Disclosure in and of itself is a first step to achieving transparency, but as a solution, it doesn’t do much.

There needs to be a change in culture so that it is seen as exemplary for administrators in medical schools, faculty and students to avoid financial conflicts of interest. These views are, in part, dictated by the general funding model for medical research.

HR: Some have proposed expansion of public funding for health research and clinical trials.

AS: Industry has said that it should rightfully be a partner in medical research and education—that they are among those who want to promote better patient outcomes and better quality of life for patients.  This can be done through anonymous funding to a pot of money administered independently of pharma. If serving patient interests and not only shareholders is their goal, then this can be achieved by donating anonymously.

There have been many scandals and in the US, between 2006 and 2015 over $30 billion in fines where industry has overstated the benefits of their products and concealed information about harm.

 

PharmaChart3-373x600

HR: It has also been pointed out that these fines do not really act as a deterrent but are thought of as a cost of doing business (see here). An interesting point was made by Ralph Nader’s watchdog group Public Citizen in the US. They pointed out in 2012 that Big Pharma was the leading defrauder of the US government having surpassed the defense industry.

Another interesting aspect of these legal approaches—prosecutions and fines—seem to be confined to the United States.

As far as I know, the Canadian government has never prosecuted any of the companies who paid huge fines for committing fraud in off-label promotion, and failure to disclose safety data like GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) or Pfizer. In the US, GSK paid a total of $3billion –$1billion in criminal charges and $2billion in civil charges in 2012. The drugs involved included anti-depressants like Paxil and Wellbutrin and the diabetes drug Avandia which are sold in Canada.

 

It is not clear to me why no actions were taken in Canada by the government.

 

AS: However, Health Canada itself has been sued for not protecting Canadians from a product that it “knew or ought to have known” had significant risks.

HR: All of the issues you have described in relation to financial conflicts of interest intersect with other reform movements in medicine—the data transparency movement and the regulatory reform movement. Knowledge activists in these arenas are pushing for a variety of reforms to make patient-level research data available and make regulatory activities more transparent and more patient-centered.

AS: Financial conflict of interest relationships are common within the medical profession, in medical research, and in medical education. These financial relationships have served as one method by which drug companies have been able to exert their influence and increase their involvement in the daily research and practice of medicine. While we can all agree that drug companies have produced life-saving and quality-of-life enhancing medications, there is also a substantial literature on dubious and outright illegal promotional activities, suppression of data, and behind-the-scenes management of medical science by for-profit companies. This has not gone unnoticed—it has been met with resistance.

There are mobilizations against the negative aspects of pharma influence that are engaging medical students, practicing physicians, journal editors, journalists, citizen scientists, watchdog groups, and members of the public questioning these relationships to industry. Their goal is simply to promote medical science in the interest of the public good.

HR: Can you name some examples?

AS: Interested readers can go to the website for AllTrials, and also COMPare which looks at discrepancies between registered trial outcomes and what is actually reported, articles in the BMJ about the work of RIAT (Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials). In 2009, newspapers like the New York Times carried articles on ghostwriting in medical journals as did PLOS Medicine. There have been medical student and practicing physicians who under the banner of “No Free Lunch” oppose freebies from industry. And also there are independent watchdog drug and device evaluators like the Therapeutics Initiative in British Columbia, Public Citizen’s Health Reform Group and Prescrire in France, for example.

In addition, an important source of information about drug safety can be obtained from going to Health Canada and the US FDA websites for publicly available information which does not get as much publicity as direct-to-consumer ads that we see on US TV or online.

Medical institutions should of course strive to disseminate information to healthcare professionals, patients and members of the public that are not influenced by industry marketing goals. And there are a variety of ways that this can be done including more stringent and enforceable conflict of interest policies.

But in addition, the public should seek out independent information, and use critical skills when assessing articles and guidelines. Much that reads like objective medical science may in fact have its origins in marketing.

 

Further readings:

Angell, M. The truth about the drug companies. Random House Trade Paperbacks. 2005

Ford AR and Saibil, D. The push to prescribe. Women’s Press. 2009

Goldacre, B. Bad Pharma: How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it. 2013

Gotzsche, P. Deadly medicines and organized crime. CRC Press. 2013

Healy, D. Pharmageddon. University of California Press. 2013

 

The Conflict of Interest Movement in Medicine, Part 1: A Conversation between Harriet Rosenberg and Adrienne Shnier

By Harriet Rosenberg and Adrienne Shnier

May 9th 2016

Part 1: Weak Policies and Ghostly Authorship

This blog is presented in interview form and is an amalgamation of an interview plus several subsequent conversations between Adrienne Shnier, a graduate student at York University and Harriet Rosenberg, a retired York University professor. Adrienne’s PhD thesis is titled Medical education and financial conflict of interest relationships with the pharmaceutical industry in Canada: An analysis of four areas of medical education and will be available online in August 2016.

HR: Your research is part of a reform movement within medicine that focuses on the influence and impact of conflicts of interest—especially financial conflicts of interest.

Your thesis research and publications have been about the education of Canadian physicians, broadly speaking, and the role that conflict of interest awareness and policies have played in shaping medical science and ultimately patient care. You argue that neo-liberal government policies, in Canada and around the world, over the last 3 decades have played an important role in transforming the practices and culture of medicine.

AS: Policies that are pro-business have contributed to an environment of commercialization of medical information and the protection of that information as proprietary. This has led to trends toward the privatization and commodification of science in ways that most people don’t realize.

For example, new for-profit research organizations have emerged in recent years. Relationships with these types of organizations are now embedded institutionally, and so the study of policies around conflict of interest (COI), especially, financial conflicts of interest (fCOIs) becomes very important. Pharmaceutical industry funding for research has expanded dramatically. For example, it is worthwhile noting that as of 2005 the pharmaceutical industry has provided 70% of total funding for clinical trials in the US (see here and here).

HR: The concept of conflict of interest, especially financial conflict of interest seems pretty straightforward. At a minimum, medical students, practicing physicians, and researchers should be aware of and avoid any potential for bias associated with taking money from the pharmaceutical industry. Yet the concept and associated policies have been fought over for decades. Those supporting close ties with industry argue that everyone has conflicts and that the term is itself disrespectful, pejorative and condescending.

They view those who want stringent conflict of interest policies as being sanctimonious moralizers. But those who want to separate medicine from the influence of the pharmaceutical industry point to a vast literature of revelations from investigations, lawsuits, legal documents, and academic articles and books that show how industry has manipulated clinical trials to exaggerate benefit and downplay harms.

AS: A solution to these debates about fCOIs, is to remove them from the personal, individualistic realm and have policies that apply to all rather than having to investigate and pursue case-by-case situations. Having clear, enforceable policies in the first place and then applying pre-specified penalties would help to protect the integrity of the profession.

HR: You looked at issues of fCOI within the Canadian context. There were four areas that came under the broad umbrella category of the education of doctors. You started with the education of medical students in your published 2013 paper.

AS: My co-authors and I looked at 17 Canadian medical schools to evaluate the presence of and stringency of fCOI policies.

HR: Your title says it all, “Too few, too weak.”

AS: We were concerned about the degree to which the schools protected their faculty and students against fCOI with industry. We were also curious about whether the potential for hidden fCOIs and commercial messages existed in medical school education — for example, did teaching faculty disclose their ties to industry? Were faculty permitted to have fCOIs with industry? Were medical students taught formally, as part of the curriculum, about how to identify fCOIs and behaviors and attitudes associated with engaging in them?

HR: You also asked about disclosures of financial links to industry in educational materials.

AS: The category of on-site education asked whether industry was permitted to provide direct financial support for educational activities, including Continuing Medical Education (CME). Approximately half of the schools did not address this category; whereas, approximately one-third of the schools had policies that allowed industry funding to be allocated to a specific topic, but that funding should be provided to the department rather than an individual. The remaining schools had policies that protected learners through prohibiting the provision of industry funds directly to educational activities, while still allowing unrestricted grants.

HR: Were freebies like lunches, pens and other trinkets examined for how they legitimated industry influence?

AS: No, but approximately half of the schools had policies on gifts, while the other half did not.

HR: What is the take-home message here?

AS: Most schools had weak policies. Commentators on our article in the press were surprised. After this study was published, some medical school administrators said they would tighten, or were in the process of tightening, their fCOI policies.

HR: Your research also includes the commercialization of medical journals and the concept of “honest publishing” in medical journals. The influence of industry on how clinical trials are conducted and written about in medical journals—including the highest profile medical journals— is an area of conflict of interest not very well known to the public.

People assume that medical science journals publish accounts of clinical trials that are conducted by academic researchers whose names appear on the title page and that these trials describe with care and honesty the potential benefits and harms of a drug —that they serve the public interest.

It is quite a shock to learn that things often don’t actually work that way and that leading physicians, including many medical journal editors themselves, warn of corruption in trials. These are people like Dr. Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine and long-time former editor of the British Medical Journal, Dr. Richard Smith among others, who wrote that the clinical trial was now the “marketing arm” of the pharmaceutical industry. A recent article by the redoubtable Stanford University Professor John Ioannidis argued that “evidence-based medicine has been hi-jacked” by commercial interests.

AS: It is also important to note that from the perspective of industry, data from clinical trials about the harms of their products can be considered to be commercially confidential information (CCI), which should not be released because it would give their competitors an advantage. In some cases, adverse event data is considered to be proprietary and, therefore, potentially inaccessible by the public see here).

HR: Some have called this the dominance of MBM—Marketing-Based-Medicine— over EBM, Evidence Based Medicine. In the now available documents from court cases we see “publication plans” with lists of numbered marketing messages to be inserted.

AS: The whole structure of clinical trials and journal publishing has been transformed by the creation of for-profit businesses that serve the pharmaceutical industry outside of the environment of academia.

There are companies called CROs—Contract Research Organizations—that are hired by pharmaceutical companies. Researchers have estimated that CROs are now responsible for conducting up to 75% of medical research (see here). The CROs are for-profit research businesses that conduct clinical trials—they have global reach—and recruit from around the world. They administer the trials, collect the data, and analyze the data. We know from documents from court cases that they are in close contact with the pharmaceutical companies who hired them throughout the process. Some of these documents that show the communications involving for-profit research and writing organizations are available on-line from the documents archive site called Industry Documents Library at the University of California San Francisco (see here and here).

These documents show memos and long-term marketing plans for about 5 year periods, and connections with other related businesses called Medical Education Communication Companies and Medical Writing Organizations. In this context, we have come to understand that the terms “medical writer” or “medical editor” indicate the involvement of a ghostwriter. Medical writers are hired through these organizations as contract workers to write up the results of trials, prepare conference posters and presentations, slide kits for physicians to present to colleagues, write letters to medical journal editors and develop a variety of “defense of product” communications when the product is challenged. There are important similarities between pharma, tobacco, and other industries in this regard.

These CROs and/or writing/editing businesses also seek out academic physicians as guest authors to put their names on the mastheads of trial write-ups and to be the face of the trial in medical journals. This practice has been revealed in legal transcripts and materials that judges may choose to unseal in court cases and are available on the Industry Documents Library. You can read the memos, the emails, the publication plans with proposed titles and slots for authors to-be-decided later (see here and here).

A recent 2016 publication by Cosgrove and colleagues shows that these practices continue into the present and contribute an additional dimension to research on financial conflicts of interest —those of medical journal editors themselves (see here).

HR: So this is why you use the term “honest publishing.” The work of these businesses —the CROs, the medical writers/editors, the medical education businesses are all associated with the pharmaceutical industry and seem to be generally hidden from the public. One could say “hidden in plain sight” because they are easily found on the internet and the medical editors even have their own professional organizations and do not see themselves in a negative way as ghostwriters even though their names do not usually appear in journal articles.

High profile medical journals around the world, including within Canada, have been grappling with this issue of “honest publishing” and the now complicated and unreliable term “author.”

What can you tell us about your research on “honest publishing” in Canada?

AS: There is very little written about this in the Canadian context; however, the issues seem to be the same for journals and for physicians, for medical students and for the public internationally because when articles are published in medical journals, they reach international physicians, medical students, and patient audiences.

HR: This leads to the question: How can you actually figure out what is going on with an article—even in the highest prestige journals—did the listed authors do the research and did they themselves write up the results?

AS: This is difficult to know without complete transparency about the roles of individuals and research and writing companies in the publications process. In one of my thesis chapters, I provide a preliminary research tool that can be used to gauge the fCOI disclosures and transparency of individuals’ roles required in medical journals.

HR: So some articles are published and it may be the case that the listed authors did not even see the raw data. There is really no way to tell outside of what may eventually come out in lawsuits.

AS: Correct. We do not know if authors had access to the raw patient-level data or only the already-analyzed data from these companies.

HR: Sometimes in the acknowledgments of an article an “editor” is thanked for assistance and this may be a clue that a ghostwriter had significant involvement in the drafting and development of a manuscript. One of the risks in this situation is that because the medical writer’s employer has been hired by a drug company, this creates an environment that incentivizes the development of medical manuscripts that are generally favorable to the drug company.

AS: There is no way to know what the named authors have actually contributed, outside of the problematic ICMJE requirements for disclosure, onto which many journals have voluntarily subscribed….so the answer is, no.

HR: The ICMJE (International Committee of Medical Journal Editors) is a group of leading medical journal editors who got together to try to tighten rules around authorship given the scandals about ghost authorship and the lack of transparency about who was responsible for what parts of the trial write-up and what the role of industry was in all of this, including not only the text but the statistical analyses. This was brought to a head when over 1500 pages of documents were unsealed in relation to breast cancer lawsuits (against Wyeth, now Pfizer) by women who had taken Hormone Replacement drugs. The documents (available on line in the Industry Documents Library) revealed an entire backstage system of industry involvement in promoting the benefits of HRT and downplaying harms.

The medical journals now have tighter guidelines around authorship but it has been pointed out that there are many ways of getting around them.

Furthermore, write-ups in medical journals—regardless of who the authors are—are just a fraction of the story. The issue of data transparency and how the full record based on all the raw data gets condensed and possibly distorted in the published version is also very important. For example, Dr. Ben Goldacre has argued for transparency because the published record falls short. About 50% of trials are just not published. He and allies in leading medical journals like the BMJ have started an initiative called AllTrials to correct this.

HR: We will be looking at this more fully in our discussion with Dr. Elia Abi-Jaoude in a future blog.

You have developed a glossary of terms that comprise 50 items that help explain what has now become normative in medical journal publishing. Tell us about them.

AS: The glossary includes terms that describe various fCOI relationships and the involvement of industry in the research, data collection, data analysis, and writing processes. For example, do they disclose consulting for pharma, honoraria for speaking engagements for particular companies, do they (or family members) disclose owning stock, and do they appear on scientific advisory boards of pharmaceutical companies—just what are their ties to industry? Have the named authors had access to the raw data? Have the trials been registered in a clinical trial registry? Have any trials been suppressed? The answers to these, and other, questions at least allow the reader to put articles in medical journals into some context about their origins.

More difficult in journals is to find policies that address other aspects of industry influence. Do journals have policy language that addresses behind the scenes behavior? Do they have ways of detecting ghostwriting and preventing ghosted articles from being published? Can they verify if the names on the article are the people who did the work? Do they have penalties for breaches of policy?

Analysis of medical journal policies, themselves, were not a part of this study, but I hope to use the research tool to do this in a future study.

HR: How widespread is this problem of authorship?

AS: I have seen figures that indicate that between 9% and 49% of published medical articles are ghostwritten. At some phases in product promotion, it has been argued that 90% to 100% of articles during these key phases or within certain specialties are written by industry hired writers and not the academics whose names appear.

The industry-originated and planned research studies, data collection, analysis, interpretation, writing, and publication of these studies, are all the while being potentially informed by a larger promotional campaign for a drug. Collectively these coordinated undertakings have been called “ghost management” and are related directly to the commercial nature of the pharmaceutical industry.

Simply put: the meaning of authorship has changed.

End of Part 1

Further readings:

Angell, M. The truth about the drug companies. Random House Trade Paperbacks. 2005

Ford AR and Saibil, D. The push to prescribe. Women’s Press. 2009

Goldacre, B. Bad Pharma: How medicine is broken, and how we can fix it. 2013

Gotzsche, P. Deadly medicines and organized crime. CRC Press. 2013

Healy, D. Pharmageddon. University of California Press. 2013

Transparency and access to publications: The question of (useable and useful) knowledge

by: Jim Deutsch

May 5th 2016

Science (from the Latin scientia, for knowledge) is an essential part of how we grasp reality and decide how to act. As we are all citizens of the world, should the collected works of science not be available freely to all of us? Clearly they are not, for a variety of reasons.

This blog is part of an effort to address barriers to access. But it is also necessary to look beyond this crucial issue. (more…)

The vanishing act of government documents – and what to do about it

by Sam-chin Li 

As Phyllis Creighton[i] and Anne Kingston have lamented,[ii] an enormous amount of information has disappeared from Canadian government websites. Access to government information is a basic requirement for a democratic society. This information is not only essential for researchers, historians and scientists to do their work, it is also critical to many aspects of every citizen’s life.

I would like to share my story of how lost government information has impacted my ability to carry out my job as a government information librarian. I have been digitizing Canadian government publications[iii] without applying for copyright permission based on the 2010 copyright statement from a news release of Crown Copyright and Licensing (CCL). The news release states, that for non-commercial purposes, “permission to reproduce Government of Canada works is no longer required.” However, in 2011, the link to this news release was broken. Instead, we found this information on the CCL site: “A permission/license is needed when a Government of Canada work is being reproduced.” After searching frantically everywhere for a print copy of the 2010 news release with no success, we were worried that if the University was sued for infringement of the crown copyright law, we would have no evidence to back us up.

Based on our horrible experience, we used the Wayback machine in November 2012 to archive the Crown copyright page[iv] when the policy changed again dispensing with the need for “permission to reproduce Government of Canada works.” However, this policy was changed again quietly in November 2013. Michael Geist, a law professor from the University of Ottawa, questioned Tony Clement, the then President of the Treasury Board, via twitter[v] about the end of the Treasury Board’s administration of Crown Copyright and the disappearance of the non-commercial license for reproducing Government of Canada works. Clement’s response was: “The Crown Copyright non-com policy still remains in effect for all depts. I’m posting a notice to that effect.” This time, we have printed a copy of Mr. Clement’s response for our file to support our digitization projects.

Government information, including laws, regulations, policies, reports, statistics and more, keep changing on a regular basis. No citizen has the time, energy or knowledge to keep track of all the changes and to produce an archival copy for evidence in case it is needed. This is why preserving point-in-time government information is so critical. However, only current information is available on most of the government websites and as of April 2014, Canadian government information[vi] is no longer available in print; it is now exclusively available electronically. An unclassified Treasury Board document,[vii] requested by British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association in 2013, revealed plans for  consolidation of over 1,500 Government of Canada websites into a single site by 2015. As the result, a large amount of information would be cut from government websites according to a vague guideline entitled ROT[viii] (Reduce Redundant, Outdated and Trivial content). Preserving government information has never been so critical.

Despite a legal mandate to preserve the documentary heritage of Canada, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) stopped their web archiving activities within the federal government domain in late 2007 and ceased the legal deposit program for provincial and territorial government publications in 2012[ix]. . It was only in late 2013 that LAC resumed the web archiving activity of the federal government domain after intensive lobbying by the library community. However, provincial and territorial government publications are now out of the legal deposit mandate of the LAC. Thousands of second copies of the provincial and territorial official publications were shipped out from LAC in 2013. Libraries that requested titles to fill their gaps from this collection received not only the title requested but a whole box of publications where that title sat. University of Toronto Libraries are sorting out duplicate titles from this shipment for overseas exchange programs.

Libraries have been taking an active role in ensuring access to government information as they face the daily challenge of assisting users to locate government information in an ever-changing online environment. And despite the radical changes in government information policies and procedures in the last decade, libraries work to preserve access to these materials.

Many efforts are underway to preserve born-digital government information. Since October 2012, the Canadian Government Information Digital Preservation Network (CGI DPN)[x] initiated by Amanda Warkaruk, University of Alberta Libraries (UAL), applies the LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) software to preserve digital collections of government information. With eleven member institutions across Canada, the purpose of the network is to ensure long-term access to government information through a geographically distributed, tamper-evident preservation infrastructure. Their first initiative is an archive of the Canadian Depository Services Program (DSP) e-collection. Secondly, web archiving of government websites is made possible by a consortium Archive-It account to harvest at-risk government content as the html format of this content is not within the mandate of the DSP. Lastly in 2015, a collaborative effort with DSP to report at-risk documents, with a spreadsheet[xi] to identify fugitive government documents was created by a sub-group of the CGI DPN.

In May 2012, the government announced that funding would be cut in 2013 for the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), a body that explored ways in which economic and environmental concerns could be reconciled. The government refused to keep the papers on the internet and refused an offer of a NGO to maintain the database free of charge[xii]. It was through a collaborative effort among a few Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL), that a copy of NRTEE’s e-documents, including official and consultant reports, is available to the public. NRTEE offered their documents to OCUL and University of Toronto Libraries obtained a copy via an usb drive, University of Waterloo catalogued the documents and now a total of 245 of them are available to the public via the Scholars Portal e-book platform.[xiii]

In view of the massive loss of government web content in 2013, individual institutions[xiv], such as the University of Alberta Libraries and the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL)[xv] have been involved in archiving government websites using their institutional Archive-It accounts. UTL have also purchased the Global Wayback captures of the Canadian government websites from December 2007 to June 2013 to be integrated into their Archive-It account to fill the gap left by Library and Archives Canada. However, without a mandate, funding, or staff, libraries cannot continuously support this archival activity.

In light of the new government’s move to restore the long form census there’s greater hope that the long term access of government information will be systemically supported again to ensure public access over time. In the newly released 2016 Budget[xvi], the Government has allocated $12.9 million over five years to the Treasury Board Secretariat for enhancing access to government and personal information and $11.5 million for accelerating and expanding open data initiatives.

These are all welcome changes in an era of growing concern about the perpetual access to digital government information. However, any decision on budget cuts or policy changes can affect its direction again. The stewardship of this important and yet fragile information cannot rely on a politically favorite climate alone but should have appropriate legislation to ensure a comprehensive, trustworthy and long-term access to it. Right now, there is no legal obligation for the departments and agencies to submit their publications to the Publishing and Depository Services (PDS). Many departments were publishing pdf titles without a GC catalogue or ISBN number, there is no systemic way to keep track of what has been published. Thus, there’s no way to tell what is not acquired by the PDS or the Library and Archives of Canada.

Given that it is supposed to serves as the permanent repository of Canada’s documentary heritage, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) should develop a digital strategy to preserve the government’s documentary heritage for all levels of government in Canada. There is already an existing infrastructure to collect and provide one-stop access to selected digital federal and provincial government publications among the government and legislative libraries in Canada. Gallop Portal[xvii], established by the Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada (APLIC), brings together the significant government document repositories that have been built by individual legislative libraries and the PDS. Library and Archives Canada should seek the opportunity to work with them to extend the scope of preserving provincial and territorial government publications.

With more institutions in Canada involved in web archiving, Library and Archives Canada should also follow the example of the British Library[xviii] to cooperate with major libraries to capture government web domains, including provincial and municipal ones.

A trusted digital repository[xix], should be employed by the LAC to safeguard the authenticity, integrity and long-term access to digital government information. In order to ensure the comprehensiveness of digital government information, Library and Archives Canada should also take a leadership role in coordinating the government departments and agencies to design website content which is archival friendly. Currently, many databases or pages with interactive or dynamic content use Flash or JavaScript. This poses challenges for web archiving.

 

Since 1981, the library community has been working closely with the PDS through the Depository Services Program Advisory Committee (DSP-AC) to advise on its operations, policies, practices, plans, direction and services. It has been playing an active role for the past few years to ensure a smooth transition of analog to digital Canadian government information. With their expertise and knowledge, the library community has also stepped in to help preserve government information at the time when LAC was experiencing difficulty. At an early developmental stage of the Open Information Portal[xx], an advisory body to the LAC with stakeholders from the library community and from institutions which support the acquisition, preservation and long-term access of government information would also be beneficial. Collaboration is key to the stewardship of the evolving landscape of digital government information.

[i] Phyllis Creighton, “Erasing history”, Our Right to Know, accessed March 22, 2016, https://ourrighttoknow.ca/erasing-history/.

 

[ii] Anne Kingston, “Vanishing Canada: why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data”, Maclean’s, September 18, 2015, http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/vanishing-canada-why-were-all-losers-in-ottawas-war-on-data/.

 

[iii] “Canadian Government Publications Portal”, Internet Archive, accessed April 12, 2016, https://archive.org/details/governmentpublications&tab=about

 

[iv] “About Crown Copyright”, Wayback Machine, accessed March 23 2016,

https://web.archive.org/web/20120819234555/http://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/ccl/aboutCrownCopyright.html.

 

[v] ”About Crown Copyright License”, Twitter, accessed March 23, 2016, https://twitter.com/TonyclementCPC/status/406805087068385280.

 

[vi] Publishing and Depository Services of Canada, “About the Depository Services Program”, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.publications.gc.ca/site/eng/programs/aboutDsp.html.

 

[vii] Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, ”Action Plan for the Renewal of the GC Web Presence”,(Unclassified document obtain by British Columbia Freedom of Information and Privacy Association),  https://fipa.bc.ca/library/Government%20Documents/GoC_web_plan_Part1.pdf.

 

[viii] University of Toronto, “Canadian Government Information”, Archive-It Collection 3608, https://wayback.archive-it.org/3608/20130819212359/http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/ws-nw/wu-fe/rot-rid/index-eng.asp.

 

[ix] Library and Archives Canada, “Legal deposit exclusions”, Legal Deposit, accessed April 21, 2016,  http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/legal-deposit/Pages/legal-deposit.aspx#dep-exclusions

 

[x] “CGI Network”, PlnWiki, accessed March 23, 2016, http://plnwiki.lockss.org/wiki/index.php/CGI_network.

 

[xi] Michel-Adrien Sheppard, “Canadian Librarians Track down Fugitive Federal Government Documents”, accessed March 24, 2016, http://www.slaw.ca/2016/01/10/canadian-librarians-track-down-fugitive-federal-government-documents/.

 

[xii] Carol Linnitt, “Harper’s attack on science: no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”, Academic Matters, May 2013, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.academicmatters.ca/2013/05/harpers-attack-on-science-no-science-no-evidence-no-truth-no-democracy/.

 

[xiii] Scholars Portal, “Scholars Portal Books”, http://books2.scholarsportal.info/search.html?searchTerm=&searchField=All+Fields&collection=NRTEE&sortBy=relevance&limit=full_text.

 

[xiv] Vicent Gogolek, “Harper Government centralizing, slashing federal web info” Huffpost British Columbia, March 10, 2013, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/vincent-gogolek/harper-government-websites-access-to-information_b_2838916.html.

 

[xv] University of Toronto, “Canadian Government Information”, Archive-It Collection 3608, https://archive-it.org/collections/3608.

 

[xvi] Government of Canada.  “Budget 2016”, accessed March 23, 2016, http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/ch7-en.html#_Toc446106839.

 

[xvii] The Association of Parliamentary Libraries in Canada, GALLOP Portal: government and legislative Libraries online publications portal, accessed April 22, 2016, http://aplicportal.ola.org/.

 

[xviii] British Library, “Click to save the nation’s digital memory”, accessed April 22, 2016, http://www.bl.uk/press-releases/2013/april/click-to-save-the-nations-digital-memory.

 

[xix] Canadiana.org, “Canadiana.org certified as Trustworthy Repository”, Canadiana, accessed April 19, 2016, http://www.canadiana.ca/en/tdr-certification

 

[xx] Government of Canada, “Open information”, accessed April 21, 2016, http://open.canada.ca/en/open-information

 

ndscape of digital government infor

My Experience As A Citizen Scientist

by Geraldine Lindley


March 23, 2016

The citizen science model (also known as participatory science) provides ordinary people with volunteer opportunities to support scientific research. Thus, more research can be carried out contributing to an increase in scientific knowledge.

Sources of funding for citizen science projects vary, and may include government, NGOs, business, and private donors. For example, the Canadian federal government, in addition to providing grants, may provide direct support through partnerships in which their staff participate in data collection and other research and conservation activities. Such is the case for the Piping Plover conservation program, the first of my two memorable hands-on experiences which I will describe briefly.

In contrast, if the federal government is not directly involved, as with the Leatherback Turtle conservation program of Earthwatch, benefits to citizen science may still flow indirectly if a nonprofit organization is able to receive charitable status under Canadian tax law, thus potentially enhancing donorship due to its ability to give tax deductible receipts.

Saving the Piping Plover (aka Piping Plover poop patrol)

PIPLnest_photo BSC-1

Image credit: S. Abbott, Bird Studies Canada

Our mission – to spot a small pale sand-coloured bird on a kilometres-long beach of sand; and from a distance (so as not to disturb it at all), determine if and where it poops, then find that exact spot to retrieve a sample. I should also mention that fog frequently blanketed or moved in large patches on the beach. Luckily for me and my fellow volunteer, we had time and curiosity on our side, the guidance and encouragement of a stellar mentor (Sue Abbott, who heads up the Nova Scotia Piping Plover conservation program for Bird Studies Canada), and reasonably good eyesight!

 

As enthusiastic volunteers, my friend and I spent a week one summer carrying out various tasks on three Nova Scotia beaches with the aim of helping research and conservation efforts for the endangered Piping Plover that breeds on sand beaches before heading south for the winter. We learned that populations had declined significantly over the years due to human-caused loss of habitat and beach disturbances. We also learned that dedicated scientists and volunteers were working very hard to understand and conserve this species. Notably, collaboration among plover experts extends to other parts of North America – one example being the one-time specific request from a U.S. researcher who wanted to attempt to extract DNA from any droppings we were able to collect.

We got up early, ate a hearty breakfast, and checked the weather forecast. We stuffed our backpacks with water, snacks, suntan lotion (ever optimistic), rain jacket and pants, notepad and pencils, binoculars, camera, wipes for cleaning salt spray off binoculars and camera, sunhat, cell phone, gloves, sunglasses, and garbage bags.

PipingPlover adult nesting

Image credit: N. MacDonald, Bird Studies Canada

The few nests were encircled by wire mesh “exclosures” to protect the eggs from foxes and other predators while permitting the adult Piping Plover to enter and exit. The young birds were also extremely vulnerable during their time after they left the nest and before they could fly. We patrolled the beach several times a day, recording location and numbers of nests, young and adult birds; and weather, time of day, and any disturbances of note. We assisted in putting up signs to notify beach-goers of sensitive areas; and we politely explained to them the importance of the conservation program and how they can avoid disturbing the birds. And yes – we did successfully retrieve a few samples of bird droppings.

PPPloverChick_LJewkes

Image credit: L. Jewkes, Bird Studies Canada

As a “fledgling Citizen Scientist”, I loved every minute! I came away with an understanding of the hardships threatening the survival of the Piping Plover as it struggles to breed in a relatively short season. More importantly, I wanted to “spread the word”. I developed a deep respect and gratitude for all the scientists (researchers and volunteers), and the stewardship shown by local communities. I embraced the strong feeling of connecting to nature, and I also felt connected to a larger conservation community. As a bonus, I do believe that I now have a remarkable ability to easily distinguish various shades of a sand-coloured hue.

If I close my eyes I can clearly see a six inch sand-coloured bird with a black neck-ring and bill tip, hear its peeping whistle, smell the salty tidal mudflats, and feel the serenity of the early morning beach patrol.

As a final note, I am eager to receive my copy of an incredible volunteer-based initiative – the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of the Maritime Provinces.(www.mba-aom.ca) Of the information on 222 nesting species, I will immediately turn to that on the status of the Piping Plover.

I have a sense of the history associating citizen science with bird conservation. And today, the continued importance of this association is evident when I look through the website for Bird Studies Canada (www.birdscanada.org) under the “Citizen Science” tab and see over thirty initiatives!

 

Saving the Leatherback Turtle, by Moonlight

 

My other citizen science experience took place on Sandy Point, St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another endangered species on another beach. Our small group of volunteers were trained by Earthwatch Institute scientists to collect data and rescue turtle hatchlings over a ten day period during the time of year when females come ashore to dig nests on the beach and lay ninety or so ping pong ball sized rubbery eggs.

LTleatherback2Earthwatch

Image credit: Earthwatch Institute

We patrolled the beach at night, often splitting up into teams of two, and keeping in radio contact with the scientists. In order to prepare for the work (walking in soft sand, for hours) I “trained” in Toronto by climbing up and and down steep hills to get my leg muscles in shape. But what I regrettably didn’t do beforehand, was get my shoulders and upper arms in shape; that would have been a big help for those times when I found myself lying flat on my stomach and repeatedly scooping out handfuls of wet sand, stretching the full length of my arm until I got to the bottom of the nests. This careful excavation process was essential to rescue any live hatchlings that had become trapped and could not make it to the surface on their own.

LTleatherbackemerging

Image credit: Earthwatch Institute

We also made certain that hatchlings safely reached the water and did not get preyed upon, nor head in the wrong direction because they were orienting to the brightest light (which on occasion happened to be those illuminating sports fields kilometres away). If a hatchling got caught in vegetation high up on the beach it would exhaust itself or die of dehydration. We also collected data on nesting females, measuring them and checking for research tags, noting place and time of laying. Occasionally nests needed to be relocated due to likely erosion of the nests by waves; and so I once found myself catching eggs as they were being laid, lying with my lower legs in the ocean and my upper body right behind the turtle’s powerful back flippers, trying not to think about what a literal pain in the neck those flippers could possibly cause me (it was totally safe, but what did I know?) should I disturb the seemingly trance-like state of the female as she exerted herself while “crying salty tears”.

LTleatherbackbabyEarthwatch

Image credit: Earthwatch Institute

Another big threat to the survival of the Leatherback Turtle was poaching of the eggs. Nightly patrols proved effective in decreasing the incidence of poaching. On the one occasion a motorboat disturbed my patrol by shining its strong searchlights at us, we tried to send a message back by shining our little flashlights at the boat! I just couldn’t accept that such wonderful and massive creatures that have travelled the oceans for over 100 million years could be at risk of extinction because of humans. In addition to threats from poaching, and coastal development along nesting beaches, turtles die from encounters with fishing gear, and from ingesting garbage (particularly plastic bags that are mistaken for jellyfish, their food source).

Apart from a moment of embarrassment when I almost tripped onto a huge female that I mistook for a rock in the dark, I was thrilled to work alongside dedicated researchers and committed conservationists, and to contribute in my small way to years of conservation efforts there – efforts that have achieved designation of Sandy Point as a National Wildlife Refuge, an end to poaching, and a significant increase in nesting turtles and hatchlings (see earthwatch.org).

The nonprofit environmental organization Earthwatch Institute continues to play a leadership role in supporting scientific research worldwide, facilitating citizen science, and raising public awareness about key environmental concerns.


PhotoGeraldine

 

Geraldine Lindley has a background in law (LL.B., LL.M.) and science (B.Sc.).  A professor of business, she teaches Business Law, Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility, and Negotiation. Her abiding interests include environmental protection, social justice and animal welfare.