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Canada Creating a ‘Death Spiral for Government Science,’ Says Newly Retired Federal Scientist

They say the truth will set you free. But sometimes all it takes is retirement.

That’s the case for Steve Campana, a former federal scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who is using his retirement as an opportunity to speak openly about the federal government’s policies and the damage Prime Minister Stephen Harper has caused to public interest science.

“I am concerned about the bigger policy issues that are essentially leading to a death spiral for government science,” Campana told the CBC.

He said federal scientists work in a climate a fear.

“I see that is going to be a huge problem in coming years,” he said. “We are at the point where the vast majority of our senior scientists are in the process of leaving now disgusted as I am with the way things have gone, and I don’t think there is any way for it to be recovered.”

This week, three of Canada’s largest unions rallied in Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver to protest the muzzling of scientists.

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 55,000 public sector employees including 15,000 scientists, said the federal government “has no respect whatsoever for Canada’s public scientists.”

“Right now our scientists are constrained in their ability to share their research and collaborate with their peers. They’re frequently ‘missing in action’ at international conferences. They can’t speak freely to the media and the public about their work,” she said.

“These are all essential elements of performing science in the public interest and that’s how you protect our country’s environment and the health and safety of Canadians.”

According to PIPSC, by 2017 the federal government will cut over $2.6 billion from science programs and eliminate an estimated 7,500 positions from 10 major science-based departments. These cuts are expected to run deep in departments already dealing with several years of funding drawbacks.

A traditionally nonpartisan and apolitical union, PIPSC has publicly vowed to make the crisis of science in Canada a federal election issue.

PIPSC recently proposed revisions to its collective agreement, which would guarantee the right for scientists to speak about their work, as long as they clarify “they are speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

“Our members, more than anyone, acknowledge that there are issues and areas where there should be limitations,” Peter Bleyer, union consultant for PIPSC, told Global News.

“But other countries, like the U.S., have established policies to distinguish between when you’re talking on behalf of the government and when you’re talking for yourself and they do just fine.”

Bleyer said more independence is needed for Canada’s scientists and their right to that independence should be enshrined in employment agreements.

He told the CBC there are many stories of frustrated federal scientists.

"It has clearly gotten worse. There is very clear evidence of that. The problem is that it has created an atmosphere that affects not only those who are directly affected, but all of those who hear about it understand what is going on around them. That's what we call, very clearly, a chilling effect."

Campana said he thinks the chill effect is the result of the federal government’s desire for communications control.

"It's hard to fathom. It seems to be simply a control issue. You could sort of understand the rationale if you were potentially talking about a controversial subject and whoever is in government quite rightly has the right to make sure there are no critical statements about policy. But when you go to the extent of silencing just talking about facts, that just doesn't make any sense."

He added this could have serious implications for the public.

"If we don't have the system in place to deal with it, there is going to be some problem that happens in the next few years. I don't know, rising tide levels or tsunami coming in or an invasion of great white sharks, where people are concerned about what's going to happen, and we won't have the qualified people in place to answer those questions at all.

"You can't have those people in place overnight. It takes years, almost decades, to develop that capacity."

Image Credit: Tanya Stemberger

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Thanks for being an avid reader of our in-depth journalism, which is read by millions and made possible thanks to more than 4,200 readers just like you.

The Narwhal's growing team is hitting the ground running in 2022 to tell stories about the natural world that go beyond doom-and-gloom headlines — and we need your support.

Our model of independent, non-profit journalism means we can pour resources into doing the kind of environmental reporting you won’t find anywhere else in Canada, from investigations that hold elected officials accountable to deep dives showcasing the real people enacting real climate solutions.

There’s no advertising or paywall on our website (we believe our stories should be free for all to read), which means we count on our readers to give whatever they can afford each month to keep The Narwhal’s lights on.

The amazing thing? Our faith is being rewarded. We hired seven new staff over the past year and won a boatload of awards for our features, our photography and our investigative reporting.

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