science.jpg

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

New title

You’ve read all the way to the bottom of this article. That makes you some serious Narwhal material.

And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).

As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists over the past year.

Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,500 members

The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.

We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.

We’ve drafted a plan to make 2021 our biggest year yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.

If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

‘Localized harassment’: RCMP patrol Wet’suwet’en territory despite UN calls for withdrawal

On Valentine’s Day, a small group of Wet’suwet’en people gathered outside a Coastal GasLink pipeline work camp in northwest B.C. to hold a ceremony to...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

Help power our ad-free, non‑profit journalism
Get The Narwhal in your inbox!

People always tell us they love our newsletter. Find out yourself with a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism