Let the Science Speak

Last month, the union I represent released the results of an on-line Environics survey designed to gauge the actual extent and impact of muzzling and political interference among federal scientists. Over 4,000 of the more than 15,000 federal scientists, researchers and engineers invited took part – a remarkable response rate. Not only did the survey reveal that muzzling and political interference are far bigger problems than at first thought, but the silencing of science through a combination of cuts, excessive control of communications, and direct inter-ference is clearly putting Canadians’ health and safety, the environment, and our economic prosperity at risk.

We called our report The Big Chill, for reasons that became apparent almost immediately. According to the survey, 90 per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work to the media. This alone will be alarming to Canadians who expect openness and accountability from their government. But even more troubling is the discovery that, faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many scientists (86 per cent) do not believe they could share their concerns with the media or public without censure or retaliation.

In other words, a “chill” has settled on federal government science that is even greater than that suggested by the cases so far reported by the media, or that can be blamed simply on poorly designed or implemented communications policies. The Conservatives’ signature 2006 communications policy of the Government of Canada clearly states that the federal public service must “provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about its policies, programs, services and initiatives.”

However, whatever the Harper government may have promised, these objectives are not being met. Science is increasingly being frozen out of policy decisions and scientists themselves are not able to provide timely, vital scientific information to Canadians. According to the survey, over one-third (37 per cent) report that they were prevented from responding to questions from the public and media by public relations staff or management over the past five years. More alarming, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) report being directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. In fact, 7 out of 10 (74 per cent) of federal scientists believe the sharing of government science findings with the public has become too restricted over the past five years. And a further 7 out of 10 (71 per cent) believe that the federal government’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence has been compromised by political interference.

Clearly, if allowed to continue, this poses a risk to public health, safety and the environment. (Fifty per cent of survey respondents said it already does.)

In fact, the impact has already been noticeably felt in departments such as Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans, where 62 per cent of scientists believe their departments do not incorporate the best climate science in their policies.

Sometimes the urge to control has no other apparent objective than to control. As one scientist who participated in the survey remarked, “Currently, we are being told off the record (because an email would be subject to an [access-to-information] request) that we have to refer enquiries about the new 30-year climate normals (1980-2010) that have been delayed to media relations.”

When did the weather become a national secret? 

Why can’t Canadians expect timely answers to straightforward scientific questions from a government that prides itself on “retail” politics? Whose interest, if not the public’s, is served by continuing to delay, defund, alter, suppress and, yes, muzzle even the most basic scientific findings on the climate? Where do we turn, if not to federal scientists, for “timely, accurate, clear, objective, and complete information?”

The day the survey results were released, the office of the new Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford – whose local riding association had recently described scientists in a fundraising letter to Conservative supporters as “radical ideologues”– responded by repeating the tired, questionable (and irrelevant) talking point: “Our government has made record investments in science.”

The federal government’s efforts to control the science message are out of control. They do not serve science. They do not serve the environment. They do not serve the economy. And they do not serve Canadians. It’s time the government admitted as much and let the science speak.


Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union of scientists and other professionals in Canada. To read the full report, The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science, A Survey, visit www.pipsc.ca/bigchill