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Some Federal Scientists Still Not Free to Speak About Work Under Trudeau Government

Remember the bad old days when federal scientists were muzzled by the Harper government and, even when health, safety or the environment were threatened, researchers were not allowed to talk about their findings?

A 2013 survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) found nine out of 10 scientists did not feel free to speak about their work, and, as public and media indignation grew, Justin Trudeau promised that would change under a Liberal government.

True to his word, after the Liberals swept to power in 2015, the restrictive communications policies of the Harper government were reversed and, in 2016 PIPSC reached a tentative collective agreement with Treasury Board that included clauses recognizing the right of federal scientists to speak about their research and requiring departments with 10 or more scientists to create scientific integrity policies.

But, according to a new survey, that message has not reached some senior public servants who continue to prevent some scientists from talking to media or the public about their work.

The new report released by PIPSC, which represents more than 16,000 federal scientists, engineers and researchers, replicates questions in the initial survey and concludes that, although there has been progress, more work needs to be done to fully remove the muzzle.

The new survey, recently conducted by Environics Research, found that five out of 10 scientists continue to feel they cannot speak freely to the media about the work they do.

Comments from respondents to the survey point more to managers than at government.

“At the mid-management level, things continue as if there had never been an election. I have a director who seems to not have gotten the memo and I am told I am not paid to have opinions and cannot speak in public,” said one respondent.

“There is still a cadre of managers who were very comfortable with the tight rules under the Harper government and are clinging to them,” said another.

In the new survey, 20 per cent of respondents said they were prevented by public relations staff or management from answering a question within their area of expertise.

Also, 40 per cent continue to believe that political interference has compromised the ability to develop policies based on scientific evidence, down from 71 per cent in 2013.

Twenty-nine per cent said they were aware of cases where their agency had suppressed or declined to release information, leading to a incomplete or inaccurate public understanding of the issue – down from 48 per cent in 2013.

PIPSC president Debi Daviau said there has been progress, but more needs to be done.

“What these survey results show is that the process of removing the chill imposed on federal scientists under the last government will take longer and require more deliberate efforts on the part of both the government and the public service to succeed,” Daviau said in a news release.

“We believe that should include efforts to strengthen whistle-blowing laws so that federal scientists don’t have to to risk sacrificing their careers in order to warn about concerns in the public interest.”

The survey found that 89 per cent of respondents believe whistle-blowing laws should be strengthened – a figure unchanged from 2013.

Daviau said it is now more important than ever that Canada set the right example for government science “given everything we see happening to federal science in the United States.”

In addition to enhanced whistle-blowing protection, PIPSC is recommending that all communications policies be reviewed to ensure the right to speak is included and that annual reminders of the policies be sent annually to staff and management.

Other recommendations include:

  • Asking Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer to develop concrete steps for government to include public science evidence in decision-making.
  • Joint staff and management training sessions promoting the right to speak.
  • Priority given to development of scientific integrity policies.
  • Promote public access and dialogue by holding open houses showcasing the work of federal scientists.

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan was not available to comment by time of publication.

The survey results are considered accurate plus or minus 1.8 per cent 19 times out of 20.

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Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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