Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kristi’s choice

Dr. Kristi Miller (Head, Molecular Genetics, DFO). Photo Globe and Mail.

Reckless sabotage. Bureaucratic harassment. Financial starvation. A quasi-religious resistance to novelty. And a good dose of incompetence.

That is the mix that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has prepared for Kristi Miller, with the incredible result of bringing her critical research on salmon anemia to a complete halt. Or so we learned this past week at the Cohen Commission. As I write these lines, Kristi Miller’s research is fully stalled, with no money allocated to it and no clear indication on how long it may take to get it moving again.

How did they stop it? By using what scientists living at the top of the intellectual food chain do best: a mind game. Consciously or not (that part remains to be seen), senior management and high-ranking scientists of this bureaucracy have blocked Miller’s work by using a circular argument which holds in 4 simple statements:

1. We don't know that there is a disease.
2. We won't take any action until we know that there is a disease.
3. We make sure that our scientist cannot find whether there is a disease.
4. Therefore, we don't know that there is a disease.

We don't have hard evidence of a pathogen affecting wild salmon, Dr. Michael Kent (ex-DFO, currently Professor of Microbiology at Oregon State University) stated on the Commission’s witness stand. Without more research, it is purely speculative to say that the virus uncovered by Kristi Miller was a significant factor in the 2009 collapse, said Dr. Kyle Garver, Research Scientist at DFO. Some of the interpretations and assumptions that Miller makes in her research may be speculative or overreached, said Dr. Christine MacWilliams, senior fish health veterinarian at DFO. (A stunning comment given that MacWilliams did not feel it was necessary to explain what she meant by that.)

To some extent, Kristi Miller herself adheres to such views about her research, notwithstanding the personal and unsubstantiated attacks carried by some of her colleagues. She agreed that there is no conclusive evidence yet linking virus to disease, or fish farms to wild salmon. But there are some pretty good indications that this may indeed be the case, “a smoking gun” as she put it to the Commission. There is a distinct genomic signature found in the Fraser sockeye, there is a virus which may be linked to that signature, there is evidence of anemia and leukemia in many infected wild salmon, and there is a dramatic decline in the sockeye population in the Fraser. And so, one may conclude, there is ample and urgent justification for pursuing Miller’s research forward at DFO’s earliest convenience.

Given the promising and novel nature of Miller’s findings and level of interest it has generated in the scientific community at large – her research was recently published in the journal Science –, the amount of resistance she has encountered at DFO from her own colleagues and management is staggering. In 2009 for example, Kristi Miller prepared a memo to her senior management alerting them over the “potentially devastating impacts” of the discovered disease on the sockeye. Dr. Kyle Garver, who was asked to review the memo, attempted to water down its contents. Alexandra Morton’s lawyer, Gregory McDade, asked Garver about this particular incident during a cross-examination at the Cohen Commission:

McDade: When a senior scientist at your department says “potentially devastating impacts”, that's a significant finding for you, is it not?

Garver: I'm sorry – for me?

McDade: What I am trying to get here is a sense of what level of certainty you need about a potentially devastating impact to the sockeye salmon to actually take action, rather than more studies. How far do we have to go in proof?

Garver: We’re following a scientific approach, so we need to establish that this sequence is indeed causing a disease.

McDade: And you are not prepared to recommend an action to your senior people at DFO until you’ve done all of these laboratory studies and have found proof to your satisfaction?

Garver: Until I find that this virus is causing disease, and that it is indeed transmissible, then I probably would not recommend action at this time.

The resistance to Miller’s findings at DFO did not always follow a strict scientific approach either, and sometimes verged on the irrational or even the supernatural. In a memorable meeting, for example, Dr. Christine MacWilliams explained to Kristi Miller that all possible pathogens affecting sockeye had already been discovered and that, therefore, there was no room for any “novel undescribed” pathogens. Science, MacWilliams was telling Miller, had ended its journey. There was nothing else to discover. We, at DFO, already hold all the knowledge that there is to hold. Search no more! All truth has been revealed. Another colleague, according to Miller, stated to her that he “did not believe that marine anemia truly exists”. As if the existence or nonexistence of such diseases was a matter of faith, rather than scientific observation.

Confronted with such a wall of resistance, Kristi Miller, a pragmatic person, decided to change her tack. They wanted a causal viral agent linking her genomic signature to an actual disease before she could pursue this further? Okay then, she’d focus her work on identifying that causal (or etiological) agent. So in 2009 she went to DFO management and to Genome BC, her major funder, asking for funding to identify the etiological agent. But they didn’t like it, Miller explained, “because our scientific advisory board wanted to keep the program as we had originally proposed”. So her funding request was denied. Talk about a catch 22. We won’t support your research because we don’t see a causal agent in there. But we won’t allow you to refocus your research on finding that causal agent either, because that’s not what had originally been proposed!

Another incident. In early 2011, Miller explained, the fish farm industry showed some signs of openness and agreed to go ahead with testing their Atlantic salmon. “But I was told later by one of the vets from one of the companies that they were advised against doing the testing by someone from DFO. So that’s as far as it went, I did not test the [farmed] fish for the signature.” Miller subsequently discovered that the person – or one of them, at least – who had killed her testing program with the industry was Christine McWilliams. Her again. What a drag, that woman. In a following meeting, according to Miller, McWilliams told in her face that “if we were to ask industry to voluntarily submit fish for testing, [she] would recommend to them that it would not be in their best interest to comply.”

Loud gasp in the Cohen Commission’s audience. But we were not done gasping yet, far from it. Shortly after came the bombshell previously mentioned: that Kristi Miller’s current funding to conduct her research on the Fraser sockeye has been reduced to, well, zero. My group is not the only one in this situation, there are several others, Miller quickly added coming to DFO’s rescue. Bu then, as if engaged in some dark inner battle with herself, she made the following comment: Well of course my group is the only large one in this situation. I have eleven people on my staff, whereas all other affected groups have one or two people at most.

It was also revealed during the same session that, just as Miller’s Science paper was being published, an order came straight out of Stephen Harper’s office banning her from addressing the media or any outside scientists. The pretext invoked for such an outrageous decision was a meaningless technicality involving a disagreement about some acronyms in the media lines. Again, Miller made a feeble and unconvincing attempt to shield her bosses: I was not the only scientist covered by that ban, she explained to the Commission. Well no, Ma’am, you were not. But you sure were the only one being published in Science that next morning.

What was very troubling in this incident, in addition to Harper’s direct intervention in a purely scientific matter, was that Miller’s senior management at DFO dropped her like a rock in this instance. The counsel who was conducting the cross-examination asked Miller:

Q: So we’re just on the eve of the publication of your paper in Science. Essentially, you have a very important paper that’s being published in a very prestigious journal, and media are contacting you, and you are being told by Dr. Richards [Miller’s boss] that you have to go to Ottawa to get approval to talk to the media. Is that correct?

A: Yes, absolutely.

This complete let-down of Miller by her management on the eve of a pretty significant day in her career was confirmed in an email, in which Dr. Richards wrote: “I understand your concern, but unfortunately there is nothing they [the PM’s communications office in Ottawa] can do.” Read: Unfortunately there is nothing I am prepared to do. If Richards had tried something – anything – to correct this awful situation, the email she wrote to Miller would no doubt have referred to it. But no, nothing. Just this one-liner.

A final cause for audience stupor in Kristi Miller’s testimony was this. In March 2011, a meeting was organized at DFO to brief Dr. Richards in preparation for her testimony in front of the Cohen Commission. The object, essentially, was to tell Richards what to say and not to say to Justice Cohen. At the meeting were present representatives from both Marine Harvest (the world’s biggest fish farm corporation) and the BC Salmon Farmers Association (the front group for the fish farm industry in BC). Miller must have sensed that there was something pretty stinky about such people sitting in such a meeting, because she said what sounded like two big fat lies to many people in the audience: (a) I was not aware that those industry people were at the meeting and (b) I don’t remember whether Dr. Richards was in attendance. I paused for a moment. Why in the world would Miller “forget” whether her boss what at that meeting or not? Was she trying to cover her again?

To see Miller defend the very people and bureaucratic machinery which are sabotaging her work recklessly on a daily basis was very troubling. Another extraordinary example of this Mother Theresa attitude was given when the counsel read to Miller a transcript in which her own boss, Dr. Richards, stated that Miller had “misrepresented” her words in regards to her being muzzled. Even though her boss was attacking her directly on public record, Miller gave the following angelical response:

Q: You would not agree that this is a misrepresentation of what you heard from Dr. Richards, would you?

A: What I would have not known at the time was whose decision it was [to muzzle me]. As I learned through the inquiry process, the decision not to allow me to speak to the press came out of the privy council office, not from DFO.

Many members of the activist community have spontaneously embraced Kristi Miller as a folk hero. And she is no doubt a heroic figure. She is interested in scientific truth, and she also departs from the DFO dominant culture in that she does appear to see scientific research as a means for solving human problems, such as the precipitous decline of the sockeye. She also shows a great degree of humanity, often expressed in the form of genuine frustration towards the DFO bureaucracy. And she displayed a high level of personal honesty and integrity in the vast majority of her responses. But she is also a product of the system, a DFO scientist raised and bred like all others to follow the same unwritten code of conduct. The prime directive of that code, of course, is that you never publicly criticize the agency no matter your grievances, that we are a family, that we solve our issues internally.

So she is a hero yes, but a tragic one. One which is stuck between two worlds: that of independent, unfettered, outcome-oriented research, and that of the self-serving bureaucracy which sees research as a means to its own perpetuation. Attempting to belong to both worlds, but unable to do so, Miller runs the risk of being part of neither. But does she have a choice?

As Meryl Streep in the classic film Sophie’s Choice, Kristi Miller has to choose between the child that she has grown and nurtured for so many years (her research on salmon anemia), and her oppressive and abusive mother, the DFO. She also has to deal on a daily basis with the growing hostility of her numerous siblings in that highly dysfunctional family, her fellow researchers, who don't understand what the hell is wrong with the rogue sister, why can’t she just be like the rest of us?

The fact that Kristi Miller has not yet given up on scientific truth, in spite of the incredible and often very personal pressures she has been enduring, is a tribute to her character and moral integrity. But how much longer can she last in such a toxic environment?

Resources and action items:

Week 1 Review of the Cohen Commission: The Skeletons Rattling in Cohen’s Closet. To get all the facts that emerged at the Commission this week, referenced with their sources.

Alexandra Morton's blog. To get the analysis.

 Dr. Kristi Miller's Testing Fund: *ACTION* Wild salmon supporters raising the $18,700 needed by Dr. Kristi Miller to test farmed Atlantic salmon for diseases and viruses. That amount was denied by DFO.

Wild Salmon Warrior Rally: *ACTION* Vancouver Art Gallery, Tuesday August 30, 2011


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Salmon-industrial complex in damage control

Justice Bruce Cohen. Ready when you are with that disease data, buddy!

The final chapter of Justice Cohen's inquiry in the 2009 sockeye collapse opened yesterday in Vancouver. Dedicated to the critical issues of salmon disease and aquaculture, this final set of hearings will take place over the next two weeks. It represents a major deal for the people in power. At stake is nothing less than the perpetuation of the cozy relationship which unites the “three amigos” of the salmon-industrial complex: the fish farm industry, the government, and the scientific establishment.

Back in November 2010, in his infinite wisdom Justice Cohen ordered the release of disease data collected over ten years in BC's fish farms. The industry has remitted the data as ordered by the judge, but it has also obtained that it be embargoed. Those who gained access to the data had to sign an undertaking not to disclose any of it until Cohen said so. According to a persistent rumor, that data is godawful damning: it will show that BC's salmon stocks have been hit by a massive viral outbreak for many years and that the industry, government, and perhaps even high-ranking scientists knew about it for all this time but decided to keep it a secret.

The public's patience, unlike Cohen's wisdom, is not infinite. Yesterday at the Commission, I heard some wonder aloud why the disease data had not been released yet, as Cohen had hinted it would be by now. The Commission's usually deserted public gallery was almost full, a pleasant and unusual sight which conveyed a clear message that people were now awaiting some concrete answers.

Those in power, of course, know that they have to respond to the public's expectations, and in particular that this bad-for-business disease data must be made available sooner rather than later, if only to avoid a rogue and uncontrolled wikileaks-style release of the entire dataset. But how to avoid a public backlash? What is the best strategy to soften the blow of such terrible and incriminating data, if any of this persistent rumor happens to be true?

Yesterday at the Commission, the establishment laid its cards on the table. Before even releasing any data and knowing that such release is ultimately unavoidable, it preemptively deployed an elaborate damage-control strategy hinging on a simple yet effective message: Yes BC's salmon stocks have known a viral outbreak for many years, but so what? This strategy has been carefully planned and thoroughly rehearsed, as the tightly choreographed exchanges between counsels and witnesses revealed.

The first witness, Dr. Michael Kent (Professor, Microbiology & Biomedical Sciences, Oregon State University) started the day by stating right off the bat that it is very hard to study diseases in wild salmon stocks and that such diseases have consequently been understudied. He added: Yes there are pathogens in BC's wild salmon but I don't see a smoking gun, we don't have hard evidence of a pathogen affecting wild salmon.

Dr. Stewart Johnson (Head, Aquatic Animal Health, DFO) concurred with his fellow witness: there is an absence of any hard evidence of a correlation between pathogens and salmon decline. The bottom line is we can't predict that link between the presence of pathogens in the water, and the number of fry that will come out of an adult spawner. And there is also a great variability from year to year, he added for good measure.

And with that, the tone was set for the day. The same message came out of the four witnesses again and again, a message expertly multiplied and amplified by the capable counsels representing the Commission and government. That message was: we have viruses, we have high salmon mortality, but we don't have a clear link from one to the other.

The name of the game was to cultivate uncertainty, and the counsel for Canada was particularly adept at bringing out just that. "In a paper, he asked the panel of witnesses, you caution that results from different studies are difficult to compare, different methodological approaches and different species in regards to their specific susceptibility to infection. You have to be careful about how you take results from different studies. Is that right?"

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: Right!

Later, the counsel for Canada asked: “What I'm really getting at here is that when you have concurrent infections, in order to understand what are the contributing factors – if any – of the given pathogen, it's usually complex, because of the given interrelated concurrent nature of the affections that are at play. Is that correct? Do the members of the panel agree with that?”

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: We agree with that!

Counsel for Canada: “What I am hearing in this is that there is considerable uncertainty around this salmon anemia disease and no one is able to tie it to any disease so far.”

Panel of leading experts [chorus]: Thou hearst well!

Dr. Michael Kent felt obliged to qualify this last response by adding: Anemia can be caused by more than one agent, such as a parasite in addition to a virus. The virus is probably a cause but we cannot rule out other causes. Retrovirus are very common in animals, many of them are endogenous. So yes we did find a virus in our studies, but definitively was that the cause of the disease? We cannot say. 

I call them here the “panel of leading experts” because that is precisely what the counsel for Canada called them on record. Counsel for Canada: “Is it fair to say that we have in you leading experts in your fields? Come on, don't be modest!” Panel of leading experts [displaying signs of modesty]: Well hmm if you say so okay then!

All counsels officiating yesterday did not show the same level of talent as their friend representing Canada. For some reason, the Province of BC decided to send out a rookie of a lawyer who immediately struck the wrong chord with the panel of 'leading experts'. She tried to obtain from the scientists something they would not give her: an actual denial of any linkage between the virus and the salmon. Fatal mistake. The fundamental principle guiding the entire day's proceedings (as the counsel for Canada had so masterfully understood) was uncertainty, not denial.

Counsel for BC: “Dr. Kent, have you concluded that no specific pathogen is a major cause to the decline of the Fraser sockeye?”

“Dr. Kent: No. I have concluded that we cannot identify any specific pathogen to be the cause of the demise of the Fraser sockeye. I know this may seem as splitting hairs but I am not saying we have excluded the possibility that a single pathogen has caused the demise of the sockeye.” 

The panel of scientists was telling the young counsel from BC (albeit in much more polite words than that) "don't push your luck, lady!" Sensing the danger, and perhaps getting a little worried about the looming cross-examination due to take place on the following day, the scientists were sticking to the script: there is no certainty one way or the other in regards to viruses and salmon.

One of the problems encountered by the panel and counsels in promoting this principle of uncertainty was the groundbreaking research conducted by Dr. Kristi Miller at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Her team's work established such linkage between viral infection and the decline of the salmon, and it has been recently saluted by the international scientific community through a publication in the journal Science. Meanwhile at home, Miller has been subjected to what can only be qualified as censorship and muzzling by her employer the DFO. Yesterday, some significant time was set aside to debunk Kristi Miller's research in no uncertain terms:

Commission counsel: Could you comment on Dr. Miller's work?

Dr. Christine MacWilliams (Fish Health Veterinarian – Salmonid Enhancement Program, DFO) : My interpretation of Kristi Miller's research based on the paper that I read is that some of the interpretations and assumptions being made were perhaps speculative or overreached. (Unfortunately, Christine MacWilliams did not explain the specific grounds on which she dismissed Kristi Miller's research, so we're going to have to take her word for it.)

The amount of ammunition that yesterday's scientific panel handed over to the fish farm industry is staggering. All the industry will need to say next week when called to witness is, tobacco industry or Exxon-style: yes our farms are heavily diseased but hey! the science is not in, the correlation between pathogens and salmon decline is not established as per our panel of 'leading experts', and we need another 10 years of science at least to establish that. But don't worry! We'll make sure that this research does happen and we'll take care of the scientists' bills.

In that cozy threesome relationship I referred to earlier between industry, government, and scientific establishment, one may ask: what's in it for the scientists? Why would they line up with the industry and politicians rather than defend, say, the principle of objective scientific truth? In a previous blog, I argued that scientists are not necessarily corrupt on an individual level, that actually most of them are fairly honest people. Rather, it's the research funding system itself which is corrupted to the bone, having been handed over to the the very industry which science is supposed to help watch over.

Dr. Stewart Johnson gave a spectacular illustration of that reality yesterday while testifying at the Cohen Commission. The strange thing is that he did not even realize he did! Describing a three-year research project which involved the study of migration patterns of Fraser sockeye from their spawning lake to the Strait of Georgia, he referred to the project's three-year funding and added almost in passing: "We received some support for this research from Marine Harvest". The fact that Mr. Johnson does not even perceive the existence of a conflict of interest here shows how deeply the scientific culture and code of ethics has been compromised by corporate funding.

As one of my fellow activists wrote in a live Facebook post during the Commission hearings: “If you leave it to the tobacco industry to detect cancer in smokers you'll get the same answer than when you leave it to fish farm apologists to find what's killing the sockeye.”