Government scientists feeling suppressed, according to union survey
By By Bruce Cheadle The Canadian PressNews
Oct. 22, 2013 — A large survey of science professionals in the federal public service has found that almost 25 per cent of respondents say they have been directly asked to exclude or alter information for "non-scientific reasons."
Some 71 per cent of those surveyed said political interference is
compromising policy development based on scientific evidence, and almost
half of those who took part said they were aware of cases in which
their department or agency suppressed information.
entitled "The Big Chill," was commissioned by the Professional Institute
of the Public Service of Canada, and paints a disturbing picture of
government scientists who feel they are being muzzled.
4,000 federal scientists — out of more than 15,000 who were invited —
responded to the union-commissioned, online survey handled by the
polling firm Environics.
"A chill has settled on federal
government science that is even greater than that suggested by the cases
so far reported by the media," Gary Corbett, the president of PIPSC,
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is
already conducting a study of how communications policy changes under
the Harper government have clamped down on the sharing of government
science with the public.
Legault was spurred to investigate the
issue by a lengthy report from the Environmental Law Centre at the
University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch,
which included a score of anecdotes from six different government
departments or agencies.
The PIPSC survey, which was conducted
June 5-19 and surveyed 4,069 of the union's 15,398 members, adds
statistical heft to that anecdotal evidence.
The responses came
from across more than 40 government departments and agencies and
included 670 Environment Canada scientists, 651 from Health Canada, 427
Defence department employees, 343 from Fisheries and Oceans, 335 from
the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and almost 300 each from Agriculture
Canada and Natural Resources Canada.
Greg Rickford, the
Conservative minister of state for science and technology, said in an
email that the Conservatives have made "record investments in science."
"Science can power commerce, create jobs and improve the quality of life for all Canadians," said the junior minister's email.
his office, however, Rickford did not respond to questions about the
issue at hand: the alleged muzzling of scientists and the suppression of
science in policy development.
A government official, speaking
on background, said Environment Canada scientists alone attended 300
conferences in 2011, published 600 articles and participated in some
The exchange with Rickford's office may help to
illustrate the vast chasm between the perspective of elected officials
and public servants.
The Conservative government, it appears,
believes communication needs are easily met with carefully scripted and
vetted talking points, even if off topic. Federal scientists, on the
other hand, may feel differently.
Fully 90 per cent of
respondents said they don't feel they're allowed to speak freely about
their work in the media, and 86 per cent believe they would face
retaliation if they went public with information about harm to public
health, safety or the environment.
Corbett noted the 2006
Government of Canada communications policy states it must provide the
public with "timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete
information" about its policies, services and programs.
"Whether by implicit policy or explicit action, there has been silencing and it continues," Corbett said.
But the survey was equally damning in its assessment of the government's use of scientific research.
21 per cent of respondents said Environment Canada uses the best
climate change evidence available to make policy, while only 29 per cent
agreed Natural Resources Canada does so.
Over at Fisheries and
Oceans, 86 per cent of respondents said they felt changes to the
Fisheries Act will hamper Canada's ability to protect fish and their
Peter Bleyer of PIPSC said that when the 55,000-member
union does broader membership surveys, they typically get a fraction of
the response rate the science survey achieved.
respondents said the muzzling of science has become worse or was never
as bad before the Conservatives came to power. But that's really not the
issue, said Bleyer.
"Whether or not this problem existed before,
it is a problem," said Bleyer. "It's a potential threat to all
Canadians. We need to fix it."
Treasury Board President Tony Clement's office did not respond to a request for comment.
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