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Report: Federal Departments Muzzling Scientists, Engaging in Political Interference

Media policies in most Canadian government departments do not effectively encourage open communication between federal scientists and journalists, says a report released Wednesday.

Published by Evidence for Democracy (E4D) and Simon Fraser University (SFU), the report said more than 85 per cent of the 16 departments studied were assessed a grade of C or lower in terms of openness of communication, protection against political interference, rights to free speech, and protection for whistleblowers.

The 22-page report also said that when compared to grades for U.S. departments (scored by the Union of Concerned Scientists), all but one Canadian department performed worse than the U.S. average.

“Overwhelmingly, current media policies do not meet the basic requirements for supporting open communication between federal scientists and the media,” Katie Gibbs, E4D’s executive director and an author on the report, said in an accompanying media release.

“These policies could prevent taxpayer-funded scientists from sharing their expertise with the public on important issues from drug safety to climate change,” Gibbs said.

The report — “Can Scientists Speak?” — gave the Department of National Defense the highest mark, a B grade, while the Canadian Space Agency, Public Works and Government Services, Industry Canada, and Natural Resources Canada each received an F.

Policies governing science-based departments received on average a C- for how well they facilitate open communication between scientists and the media, the report added.

Described as the first of its kind in Canada, the report comes after a 2013 survey of federal government scientists commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) found 90 per cent feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about their work.

The PIPSC survey also found almost 86 per cent of the scientists felt they would face censure or retaliation for speaking about a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment.

The survey, which is included in a report titled “The Big Chill,” is described as the first extensive effort to gauge the scale and impact of “muzzling” and political interference among federal scientists since the Stephen Harper government introduced communications policies requiring them to seek approval before being interviewed by journalists.

On Wednesday, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said the C- average for policies that govern science communication with the media is not something to be proud of.

“This is a grade that says Canada is failing its most fundamental obligations to keep Canadians adequately informed of urgent science matters such as climate change,” Daviau said.

E4D, a national non-partisan, non-profit organization promoting evidence-based public policy, provided several key recommendations in its report that departments can implement to improve communication between federal scientists and the Canadian public.

Policies should be easily available online for scientists, journalists and the public, E4D recommended, and it should be explicit that scientists can speak freely about their research to facilitate clear and timely communications.

Another recommendation said scientists should also have the right to final review of media releases that make substantial use of their work to protect against political interference.

In addition, scientists should be able to express their personal opinions as long as they make clear they are not representing the views of their department.

The report also recommended there be provisions to protect whistleblowers and effectively resolve disputes.

Federal government scientists play an important role in keeping Canadians safe and healthy by providing their expertise to both the public and decision-makers, the report said.

“The safety of our food, air, water, and environment depends on the ability of federal scientists to provide information to Canadians,” it added.

CBC News said it requested comments about the report from several government departments, who redirected the request to Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology.

Holder did not respond directly, CBC said, but stated in the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon that “ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments yet scientists have and are readily available to share their research with Canadians.”

Arne Mooers, an SFU professor of biodiversity and an advisor for the report, said federal scientists are important public servants with critical expertise.

“They should be encouraged to inform the public in their areas of expertise because only an informed public can evaluate what governments are doing on their behalf,” Mooers said.

“Strengthening communication between scientists and the public strengthens our democracy.”

The E4D report was published one day after Julie Gelfand, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, released an audit showing Canada will almost certainly not meet its international greenhouse gas emission reduction target by 2020 and doesn’t even have a plan showing how the nation might achieve its climate change goals.

Image Credit: Zack Embree

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