Palen in her office. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)
to Policymakers: Politicians are People Too
It’s October 2nd, 2018, and Wendy Palen is back in her office at Simon Fraser University after summer conferences, teaching a conservation field course on the rugged Pacific coast, and a brief respite from work in the wilds of Alaska. Palen is back to teaching introductory ecology, mentoring grad students and postdocs and keeping tabs on the trajectories of policy issues. Pinned along the window behind her standing desk is a prayer flag for Bears Ears National Monument. Made by an artist friend of a friend, she tells me, the flags were a fundraiser for this Utah land sacred to Native Americans. Formerly protected, and now in jeopardy, it’s one of the first conservation casualties of the Trump era.
But much of the work she has flagged to focus on now is located north of the 49thparallel separating the US from Canada. Palen updates me on her many fingers in Canadian policy pies.
Nationally, she’s got her eyes on new legislation on environmental assessment being discussed in the Canadian Senate. Provincially she’s keeping an eye on the Evidence For Democracy (E4D) campaign on Professional Reliance – the system by which professionals hired by the natural resource industry evaluate and manage public health and environmental risks. These engagements are on top of her research and teaching duties -- things enough to keep most mortals busy. Palen’s level of political involvement and energy level lately has been less than she would like. After multiple rounds of antibiotics, she’s still fighting a chronic infection that just won’t go away. Nevertheless, Palen continues to mentor a cadre of postdoctoral fellows in her role as Assistant Director of the Liber Ero program, focused on training young Canadian conservation scientists to make their work count beyond the ivory tower.
Policy on Professional Reliance – dry but far-reaching.
Professional Reliance is a pretty dry issue as policy issues go. But engaging in seemingly dry policy issues is the specialty of this aquatic ecologist. Professional Reliance is essentially about land management, something Palen is passionate about as someone well versed in how ecosystems and species suffer when land is degraded, altered, or lost. British Columbia (B.C.), the province where Palen works, is known for its rugged mountains, vast coastline, and iconic inhabitants like grizzly bears, orcas, eagles, and salmon. (Palen would like you to know it has cool amphibian life too). British Columbia has the highest biodiversity in Canada. It’s also rich in natural resources like trees, coal, copper, natural gas, gold, nickel, and iron. Development and operation of industrial activities like mining, forestry, and oil and gas affect biodiversity, environmental health, and often human health too. And right now in British Columbia, when a new development is proposed or an existing one needs monitoring, the industry hires consultants to conduct assessments of their potential or ongoing impact.
British Columbian mountains, lake, and timber, near Whistler. (Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden)
As E4D cites in their press release:
The “professional reliance” model was adopted by the former B.C. government in the context of an extensive plan to reduce “red tape” by eliminating environmental and health protection laws and concurrently reducing, by over 25 percent, B.C.’s civil service professionals responsible for stewarding and policing B.C.’s natural environment.
As British Columbians have seen from incidents like the Mount Polley mining disaster in Central British Columbia, where a copper and gold mine tailings pond flooded into nearby lakes and rivers in 2014, unenforced standards and compromised compliance systems can have disastrous consequences. In October 2017, British Columbia’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman announced that an independent review would investigate professional reliance in the natural resource sector, and evaluate its standards. That report was released in June 2018, and formed the centre of E4D’s campaign to address inherent conflicts of interest within the system, plus problems like lack of transparency and oversight.
As the system currently functions, explains Palen, it’s rife for abuse. Proponents – entities or organizations or corporations that are intending to develop something -- hire certified environmental consultants, foresters, or geologists to write their reports or permit applications or environmental assessments. These professionals are accredited by the Province of British Columbia and sign on to a code of ethics. But they work for private consultants, outside of government, whose communications are not subject to access to information laws, Palen notes.
“It’s not that any one of those individuals that are certified professional biologists or foresters, or geologists have low integrity,” Palen says. Rather, she explains, it's that they are put in a position where the power and monetary differential between them and the organizations they work for, or the companies that are applying for development permits, are orders of magnitude apart. Add onto this non-disclosure agreements that prevent individuals from speaking about unprofessional or unethical behaviour during contracts they worked on, and you have a very pervasive problem, Palen says.
As for whiffs of change, she is hopeful that her comments, submitted during the government’s open comment period, and Evidence for Democracy’s work to raise the public consciousness on this issue, might help to see standards revised. “It sounds like the government is actually making noises that they are going to change that system… with some substantial additional protections put into place,” says Palen.
One solution that stands out for her is the idea of an independent, third party review of documents, and an arm’s length relationship between consultants and companies who hire them. When it comes to a consulting company evaluating -- for industry -- the environmental and human health impacts of things like mines, drilling, natural gas plants, “There shouldn’t be an opportunity for that to be a two-way conversation,” says Palen.
As for creating that arm’s length relationship, “there are lots of different models for how to do that,” she says. “Canada is a little bit – a lot – behind in terms of what is best practice around the world.”
Palen is also plugged into a new project planned by E4D: fact checking of campaign messages and rhetoric in the run up to Canada’s next federal election. “In terms of caring about facts and evidence in public discourse and dialogue… an important goal for our organization right now, is to be a positive force for credible information, and maybe that means calling out information very quickly – real time – that’s being used in promotional campaigns, and social media,” she says. “Are we going to allow campaigns of fear and misinformation to lead us to these darker places that we’re seeing in other parts of the world?” she wonders. The political pendulum, suggests Palen, could swing in Canada just as it has elsewhere.
Taking science, and scientists, to policymakers.
Palen is also helping the Liber Ero postdoctoral fellows she mentors prepare for a November trip to Ottawa, Canada’s national capital and the hub of political power. Preparation has taken place over months, and for some, years. Fellows have been briefed at a Liber Ero retreat in Banff, Alberta, last spring by Palen’s partner and colleague Tom Sisk, Olajos-Goslow Chair in Environmental Science and Policy at Northern Arizona University, who introduced the idea of the ‘issue attention cycle.’ It’s a conceptual model that gets fellows thinking strategically about where, when and how to engage in policy relevant to the issues they are working on. And Palen and Liber Ero Director Sally Otto have helped fellows think about their conservation focus in the context of who is talking about it.
For whatever issue fellows focus on, Palen encourages them to think:
“Does the public care about this already? Do they know it’s a problem? Or is this an issue that everybody knows about and thinks is solved? Or is this an issue that is…at the crux right now, like plastics.” Ocean plastics are a hot topic now in Canada. “They are in an action phase,” explains Palen. Fellows are coached to better understand the landscape of their issue; how to figure out who to approach, who’s on what side, and dig into who is plugged into a network. Palen is excited by how well prepared the fellows are this year.
In terms of issues the postdocs are taking to Ottawa, they include ocean plastics, salmon, shark and bird by-catch in fisheries, polar bears, species at risk, invasive species and house cats, water quality and coastal health, indigenous community environmental change monitoring programs. “It’s a pretty inspiring bunch,” she says.
“I really enjoy helping the fellows think bigger about their issues, so it’s not just about walking in a room and saying ‘here’s what my science is, I do this, I collected this data, and I’ve come to this conclusion.’ It’s thinking about being a voice for the science at a much broader level. They don’t necessarily have to advocate for a policy position, but they can be an advocate for the state of our understanding of an issue that does have policy ramifications,” she says.
Liber Ero Fellows, Sally Otto (left), and Wendy Palen (second from left) with Mona Nemer (in front), Chief Science Advisor. (Photo: CSA Staffer)
Liber Ero Fellows with Sally Otto and Wendy Palen outside the Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, Canada, November, 2018. (Photo: taken by passerby)
Scientists on Parliament Hill
For Liber Ero postdoctoral fellow Emma Hodgson, the focus for her Ottawa visit is Canada’s new, and not yet finalized, Environmental Assessment Act. Her current research concentrates on figuring out the best management of fisheries resources that have cultural, ecological and social importance. In fisheries, “we need to understand what impacts are, and how they might affect populations, to then incorporate that into management planning,” she says. She works on whitefish in the Gwich’in settlement area of Canada’s Western Arctic. “It’s an important food fish in the region,” she explains. Hodgson works with community members to measure fish captured in their nets, using that data to understand populations, fish migration, and shifts due to climate change. A second branch of her work with Jon Moore, aquatic ecologist and Liber Ero Chair of Coastal Science and Management at Simon Fraser University, is focused on how estuary change impacts salmon populations.
“I think a lot about cumulative effects,” she says, and that’s the focus of her Ottawa brief. It’s referencing the idea that individually, any one project might not have large environmental impacts, but collectively, the picture changes. In the new impact assessment act currently being discussed in the Senate, she has suggestions for changes. “Broadly, there are inconsistent methods,” she explains.
In Ottawa, Hodgson met with Senator Rosa Galvez and staffers to talk about the need for a trigger for regional assessments. Galvez, also a scientist –- an expert in pollution control and impacts -- is a member of the “Independent Senators Group,” a new cohort of Senators unaffiliated with any one political party, created in 2016 as part of the Trudeau government’s commitment to reducing partisanship in the Senate, the Canadian government’s “Upper house” whose role includes reviewing and revising legislation
“If there are multiple projects proposed in a region, or if a region has already changed a lot and there are new projects [proposed], at what point do we need to decide we need to think about this as a whole system, rather than a project by project basis? There are no triggers for how regional impacts are currently conducted,” Hodgson says.
Palen thinks a lot about cumulative effects and their policy ramifications too. Often, “it’s not about yes or no to any one thing. It’s about what does this mean collectively when we add it all up,” referencing international climate policy or meeting other national or international policy commitments. “If you make all those decisions as one-off decisions,” says Palen, “you often end up some place that you never intended to be.”
Palen introducing the Liber Ero Fellowship Program to civil servants in Ottawa at a networking event. (Photo: Aerin Jacob)
Asked about what she’s learned from Palen in preparation for her Ottawa visit and policy brief, Hodgson diplomatically says it’s hard to separate what she’s learned from Palen versus Liber Ero program Director Sally Otto, since the two mentors work so closely together. But Palen has helped facilitate connections and conversations, and bringing in other experts, Hodgson explains. “One of the things I really admire is that she’s a really strong female academic, and I don’t have a lot of female academic mentors that I’ve done research with,” she says.
Hodsgon also values how Palen encourages self-reflection. In thinking about goals for her own research, and its policy implications, “What excited me is, Wendy is very strategic, and it started to help me think about ways that I can be more strategic [too]” says Hodgson.
Otto, theoretical biologist at the University of British Columbia, echoes this point, articulating that fellows really value Palen for her depth of knowledge of conservation science, “but she can also suggest directions that people might not be thinking about,” she says. One of those is to not assume they’re headed for academia. “Just having an academic leader who’s not drunk the Koolaid about how fantastic being a professor is,” says Otto, is really valuable in mentoring the fellows.
Asked if she’s seen Palen frustrated about particular policy issues, Otto says yes. Palen’s reaction to the Canadian government buying a pipeline is one example. Despite the Trudeau government’s promise to show leadership on climate action, their risky financial decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion dollars has left many in the Canadian and international scientific community scratching their heads. “Once you’ve bought a pipeline you become part of the oil industry yourself, and therefore have less ability to transition away from that industry,” says Catherine Potvin, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change Mitigation and Tropical Forest at McGill University. “You want to say you’re a climate hero and you buy a pipeline?,” she adds, “Where are we? It's confusing.” So Palen is by no means alone in her frustration over this issue. But, says Otto “I think some people just throw up their hands and walk away.” Palen, she explains, doesn’t do that. “Her reaction is, ‘we need to do more.’”
For their Ottawa trip, most Liber Ero fellows arranged meetings in pairs – for mutual support – with MPs, Senators, staffers, or public servants to present briefs related to their policy issue. The group met with Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, a position Canada’s Liberal Government introduced as part of their campaign commitment to giving science a stronger voice. Fellows also had a tour of the House of Parliament and Senate, hosted by Member of Parliament Richard Cannings, New Democratic Party Critic for Natural Resources.
Cannings, a long-time ally of the Liber Ero program, is, not coincidentally, a conservation scientist and bird biologist himself. “He always sponsors us to have passes to question period,” Palen explains, “so we get to watch adults behave like kindergarteners for an hour,” she laughs.
“He really appreciates what the fellows are trying to do,” says Palen. Cannings is also inspiring to the fellows as someone that “understands the science, deeply cares about conservation and sustainability, and got himself elected,” she says. “We have several fellows or former fellows who have inclinations in that direction. I would not be surprised in the next few years to see some of them running for office.”
Reaching Cannings in the five minutes he can spare before House duty, speaking to me by phone from the House of Commons in Ottawa on November 28th, he provides his own take on the Liber Ero visit.
“This government has increased funding for scientists, we’ve unmuzzled our federal scientists,” says Cannings, though the latter is something some Canadian journalists still dispute for departments like Parks Canada. But if more funding and less muzzling is to be effective, says Cannings, “we still have to listen to scientists.”
“We have to listen and hear what they have to say about their results, what they have found, and what that means or should mean for our policies,” he says. “Sometimes they produce data that we might not want to hear about,” he adds, referencing the recent IPCC report, and Canada’s sluggish policy action on climate change.
MP Richard Cannings, Senator Diane Griffin, and Liber Ero Fellows at the House of Commons in Ottawa. (Photo: Sarah (Sally) Otto)
Asked about the importance of mentors like Palen to help scientists interact with policy-makers, he says, “I think it’s really important… As a scientist who has moved into politics, I used to think ‘well, if people only knew the facts, they would change their minds.’” He’s since realized that data doesn’t move people. “You need to hit people in their hearts as well as their minds,” he says. So teaching scientists to frame their messages to policymakers not just in dry data is really important. “When you are a scientist, your job is to come up with questions, do the studies, try to find the results, and report those out in a very scientific way, but reporting them out in a meaningful way to policy-makers or the public is a very different thing,” he says.
Taking the ‘hitting people in their hearts,’ seriously with some levity on Parliament Hill, Cannings sends out a comical Tweet from the House of Commons. His photograph is of the fellows each miming the organism they study while seated in the House. Fellow Aerin Jacob, miming a caribou, (sitting next to Emma Hodgson, miming a fish), was nominated by the fellows to occupy the Prime Minister’s seat.
MP Richard Cannings Tweeted this photograph of the Liber Ero Fellows in the House of Commons, with the caption: “If all MPs were biologists and had to act like their study animals to vote.” (Photo: MP Richard Cannings)
As for the lasting impacts of their Ottawa retreat, Palen says learning for fellows comes in multiple forms. “Sometimes they can build really great relationships from these meetings, and they persist beyond our time in Ottawa. And other times they go in and have a meeting and it’s maybe not so constructive and they got dismissed really quickly. And that’s kind of interesting as well.”
One of the revelations Palen and her mentees take away from their meticulously planned trip is simple, yet critical for making science count in the political realm: “You put on the fancy clothes and go to Ottawa,” says Palen, ”and realize that these people you see on TV and are quoted in the newspaper… They’re just people too.”
*Disclosure: Lesley Evans Ogden is an embedded journalist at the Earth to Oceans laboratory at Simon Fraser University, where she spends one day per week. This is an unpaid position she initiated in September 2018. Wendy Palen is one of the Principal Investigators of this research group.
Photo: Pascal Limothe-Kipnes
Photo: Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden
Lesley Evans Ogden is a freelance science journalist based near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She reports mainly on ecology, conservation biology, quirky animal behaviour and environmental health, but also explores the intersection of science, human rights, policy, and the challenges of freelancing. She leapt from scientist to science journalist after an MSc, PhD, and postdoctoral research in bird ecology. Lesley later completed Science Communications and Investigative Journalism programmes at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and continues to avidly pursue professional development opportunities. Her clients include Natural History, BioScience, BBC, New Scientist, Scientific American, Mosaic, Storyboard, Science, Nature, CBC, Undark, Science News and others.
Wendy Palen is a freshwater ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is Chair of the Board of Directors for Evidence for Democracy (E4D). This non-profit organisation is non-partisan, focusing on evidence-based decision-making without supporting any one political party. Palen is also Assistant Director of the Liber Ero Fellowship Program, a post-doctoral fellowship that supports early-career scientists in tackling Canadian conservation problems, A key goal of the program is training scholars to more effectively communicate their research applications beyond the ivory tower - to the wider world.