Canadian government scientists can’t speak freely because of meddling: Survey
An Environics survey suggests 86 per cent of scientists feel they could not speak out against dangerous departmental decisions without retaliation.
Bruce Campion-Smith / Toronto Star Oct. 22, 2013
OTTAWA—Political meddling is compromising the federal government’s ability to craft fact-based policy, laws and programs, according to a report from the union representing science professionals.
The study, released Monday by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, found 71 per cent of respondents felt that policy has been “compromised” by political interference, while 24 per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons.
Ninety per cent of the 4,069 scientists who responded to the survey said they cannot speak freely about their research to the public or members of the media. A further 37 per cent said they have been directly prevented from speaking about their research to the public and media.
And 86 per cent said that, if faced with a political decision putting public health, safety or the environment at risk, they do not believe they could speak out without repercussions.
“This alone will be alarming to Canadians, who expect openness and accountability from the government,” said Gary Corbett, president of the union.
“Science is increasingly being frozen out of policy decisions, and scientists themselves are not able to provide timely, vital scientific information to Canadians.”
The “muzzling” of federal scientists has been of concern for years, Corbett said, but until the union’s survey there had been only anecdotal evidence. Corbett said the union hopes to use this study as a baseline for further surveys, in order to gauge progress on the issues.
When asked to respond Monday, Greg Rickford, the minister of state responsible for science and technology, said the federal government has made “record investments” in scientific research.
“We are working to strengthen partnerships to get more ideas from the lab to the marketplace and increase our wealth of knowledge,” read a statement from Rickford’s office. “Science can power commerce, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for all Canadians.”
The number of federal employees engaged in science and technology work declined to 35,192 this year from a five-year high of 39,189 in 2011-2012, according to Statistics Canada.
Total federal spending on science and technology is anticipated to drop to $10.49 billion in 2013-2014, down from $11.93 billion in 2010-2011.
NDP science and tech critic Kennedy Stewart said in addition to the funding pressure, scientists are concerned about moving from pure scientific research to more applied, industry-focused activity.
“To load up all the money in the middle, on the applied side, and then to punish anybody who wants to talk about anything, it’s really in the end going to be just a huge detriment to Canada in the long-term,” Stewart said Monday.
“Canada’s going nowhere unless we start to compete in the global knowledge economy. And this is not helping.”
The PIPSC study, dubbed “The Big Chill,” was conducted by Environics Research Group in June and received responses from 4,069 federal scientists through an online questionnaire emailed to PIPSC members. It has a margin of error of 1.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.