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Unshackle Government Scientists and Let Them Do Their Jobs

by YOLANDE GRISÉ, president of the Royal Society of Canada

Scientific advances have shaped modern society, have led to increased health and well-being for Canadians and have played a leading role in forming public policy. The relationship between scientists and the Canadian government is critically important, given the crucial role of science advice in supporting our country’s long-term interests.

The Royal Society of Canada was founded in 1882 by an Act of Parliament because it was understood that public policy and scientific research needed to be in dialogue. Policy and science are in a mutual relationship based on the importance given by government to scientific advice in policy development, and the recognition by scientists that government decisions are made democratically and must take into account evidence beyond that provided by the scientific community.

For this relationship to work, scientists have a responsibility to act ethically and to communicate their findings to the broader community. Science works only when discoveries made in the lab or in the field are communicated and debated, not only to other researchers but to all stakeholders. Governments, in turn, have to respect scientific advice and not impede the dissemination of scientific knowledge.

Scientists and the federal government can be at odds when government policy does not appear to be well-aligned with the best scientific advice. That tension is often constructive: For example, a 2010 report by scientists providing evidence that oil sands activity was polluting the Athabaska River led to several levels of government taking a fresh look at the monitoring practices and activity of the industry in the region.

This relationship is now at risk in Canada. Unreasonable limits are being placed on the ability of government-employed scientists to communicate their findings, whether through publication of their research results or attendance at scientific meetings. These restrictions seem particularly severe in topics related to the environment, where several government scientists have been denied the opportunity to discuss their work.

A well-known case is that of Kristi Miller, a scientist in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. She published research on the Pacific salmon stock in 2010 in the international journal Science but has not been allowed to discuss her work publicly since. The government, in its defence, has affirmed that it needs to control what its employees say, arguing that what they say could be construed as representing the views of the government.

Several scientific organizations, most notably the prominent journals Nature and Science, have raised the alarm and urged the Canadian government to rescind the restrictions.

Such restrictions fly in the face of the government’s own cabinet policy of basing policy decisions on the best science available. Furthermore, they go against the positions taken by countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where scientists are expected to give their advice independently and free of restrictions, whether or not they’re employed by the government.

This disruption in the relationship between scientists and government is avoidable. What’s needed is a policy that clarifies the relationship between scientists, the advice they provide and the federal government. This should lay out the responsibility of the government to solicit and develop the best scientific advice possible in formulating public policy. It should underscore the government’s commitment to advance scientific knowledge and not to hinder its dissemination.

It should also demonstrate the government’s commitment to use scientific advice in policy-making, recognizing the uncertainties that often come with it. It should ensure the independence of scientific advice from government control. And it should reaffirm the responsibility of scientists to conduct their work ethically, to communicate it fairly and to declare their own conflicts of interest. Such a policy will strengthen the role of science in public policy development.

Canada will only succeed as a country if it’s able to harness the best scientific advice to make decisions. The federal government should immediately unshackle government scientists and let them do their jobs. The integrity of evidence-based public policy development is at stake.

The public should be allowed to learn directly from our scientists when they make discoveries in areas of public concern.

Yolande Grisé is president of the Royal Society of Canada.

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