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


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