Royal-Society-Canada-logo.jpeg

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.

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

The government didn’t formally inspect a crucial pipeline for years. Then came the safety concerns

Manitoba has not formally inspected Winnipeg’s main fuel supply pipeline in the last four years, instead allowing industry to take the lead on oversight —...

Continue reading

Recent Posts

That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
That means our newsletter has become the most important way we connect with Narwhal readers like you. Will you join the nearly 90,000 subscribers getting a weekly dose of in-depth climate reporting?
A line chart in green font colour with the title "Our Facebook traffic has cratered." Chart shows about 750,000 users via Facebook in 2019, 1.2M users in 2020, 500,000 users in 2021, 250,000 users in 2022, 100,000 users in 2023.
Readers used to find us on Facebook. Now we’re blocked
Overlay Image