Hundreds of World’s Scientists Ask Stephen Harper to Return Freedom to Science in Canada

In an open letter published Monday more than 800 scientists are asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to end “burdensome restriction on scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”

The Harper government has recently attracted international attention after a report published by a leading research union identified Canadian scientists as particularly hard hit by budget cuts and communications protocols that prevent their freedom of expression.

More than 800 scientists from over 32 countries signed Monday’s letter, drafted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The letter states “a rapid decline in freedoms and funding” is restricting scientific freedoms in Canada by preventing open communication and collaboration with other international scientists.

“Canada’s leadership in basic research, environmental, health and other public science is in jeopardy,” the letter states. “We urge you to restore government science funding and the freedom and opportunities to communicate these finding internationally.”

Harper government downplays concerns

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) is promoting the signed letter in news outlets across Canada to raise awareness during the Government of Canada’s Science and Technology week.

In 2013 PIPSC released a survey that found 90 per cent of federal government scientists felt they were not able to speak freely with the media about their work. The survey also found 86 per cent feared censure or retaliation were they to speak critically about a departmental decision that might harm public health, safety or the environment.

Recently the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy released a report that gave the majority of federal departments studied a low or failing grade when it comes to open communication, protection against political interference, freedom of speech and whistleblower protection.

In a statement Scott French, spokesman for science and technology minister Ed Holder, said the government has made “record investments in science, technology and innovation,” adding the country is first among G7 countries for its support of academic research and “other research institutes.”

PIPSC told the Canadian Press that $2.6 billion in budget cuts are planned or underway for Canada’s 10 science-based federal departments between 2013 and 2016.

French said “while ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments; scientists have, and are readily available to share their research with Canadians.”

World is watching Canada

Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists manager of strategy of innovation, said the open letter is meant to emphasize international scientific concern over Canada’s treatment of science.

Severe restrictions on research, communication and collaboration impedes the advancement of scientific knowledge and in some cases, Halpern said, U.S. researchers are hesitant to work with Canadian government scientists because of strict partnership agreements that prevent the free flow of information.

In early 2013 University of Deleware researcher Andreas Muenchow made waves when he refused to sign a revised Canadian information sharing agreement that he felt threatened his “freedom to speak, publish, educate, learn and share.” Muenchow had been collaborating with federal government scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans for a decade at the time of the revisions.

Halpern said the Harper government’s cuts to air pollution and climate monitoring are negatively affecting understanding of these issues. He added that scientists are also prevented from traveling to international conferences to share their work, undermining the scientific process.

U.S. scientists faced similar problems

Halpern said the Union of Concerned Scientists reached out to PIPSC because it faced similar threats to scientific freedom in the U.S.

“Science thrives in an environment that is open and free and where researchers can collaborate across borders,” he said. “Canadian government scientists have made many critical contributions to our understanding of environmental and public health challenges, and we need to best and the brightest throughout the world to be able to work together.”

Peter Bleyer, policy advisor for PIPSC, told the Canadian Press the group is publicizing the letter because “we thought it was important to draw attention to what the world thinks – what the science world thinks.”

He said currently federal scientists are unable to speak freely.

“There’s so much evidence pointing to how government science has been undermined and how Canadian government scientists have been muzzled,” Bleyer said. “What is more important now is what’s the impact of that? What’s the impact in terms of our reputation around the world…and what’s the impact on Canadians in their day to day life?”

“We really hope that this appeal to what the world thinks of Canada is something that will strike a chord.”

Image Credit: Stand up for Science rally by Zack Embree.

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

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