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More than half of federal government scientists still feel muzzled, poll finds

More than two years after the election of a federal government that says it wants scientists to speak freely, more than half of federal scientists who respond to a new poll say they still don’t feel they can.

When asked if they agree with the statement “I am allowed to speak freely and without constraints to the media about work I do at my Department/Agency,” 53 per cent of 3,025 respondents answered “No.”

The poll was commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union that represents more than 15,000 federal scientists.

The voluntary survey, conducted online by Environics Research between May 29 and June 27, 2017, was sent to 15,398 members.

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Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, seen in a 2017 photo, was ‘a little surprised’ so many federal scientists still feel they can’t speak freely. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The results, published in a report called Defrosting Public Science, are improved from a similar poll conducted in 2013 under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which was widely criticized for muzzling federal scientists.

At that time, 90 per cent of respondents said they were not allowed to speak freely to the media. (The survey response rate that time was slightly higher, at 26 per cent instead of 19 per cent).

But the improved results are still unacceptable, said Debi Daviau, president of PIPSC, which represents 16,000 federal scientists and commissioned both polls.

“When half of your members still feel that they don’t have the right to speak freely, it’s a concern,” she told CBC News. “I was a little surprised.”

After all, when the new Liberal government was elected in 2015, cabinet ministers like Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, publicly announced that scientists were free to speak.

And the union has since negotiated language in federal scientists’ contracts that protect their right to speak freely about their work and their science.

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A man dressed as then prime minister Stephen Harper poses during a demonstration against the muzzling of MPs and federal government employees in Ottawa April 18, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Managers blamed

The new report says that, “Anecdotally, some respondents attribute this slow rate of change to managers who are misinformed or even unwilling to change.”

Daviau says that means there’s more work to be done.

The report recommends joint staff and management training sessions to foster and promote the right to speak, as well as getting scientific integrity policies in place in all departments to protect that right.

The poll also found:

  • 20 per cent of respondents said they had been prevented by public relations staff or by management from answering a question from the media or public that they had the expertise to answer (down from 37 per cent in 2013).
  • 40 per cent agreed that their “ability to develop policy, law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference” (down from 71 per cent in 2013).
  • 23 per cent agreed with the statement “I am aware of cases where the health and safety of Canadians (or environmental sustainability) has been compromised because of political interference with our scientific work” (down from 50 per cent in 2013).
  • 29 per cent said the were aware of cases where their department or agency has suppressed or declined to release information, and where this has led to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, regulated industry, the media and/or government officials (down from 48 per cent in 2013).

One result that hasn’t changed is the proportion of respondents who say the public would be better served if the federal government strengthened whistleblower protections — 89 per cent, compared to 88 per cent in 2013.

Fillion said a Parliamentary committee produced a report with recommendations that PIPSC liked in July 2017, but no action has been taken since then.

“Until we build in stronger whistleblower legislation, scientists are going to continue to have to choose between their careers and protecting the public interest, and that’s just wrong.”

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Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, seen in a photo from January, says she is ‘making every effort to meet with scientists and to encourage them to discuss their important work with each other and with Canadians.’ (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

When asked to comment on the report, Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who is currently travelling with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in India, reiterated the government’s commitment to ensuring scientists can speak freely about their work.

She added in a statement emailed to CBC News that the newly appointed Chief Science Advisor, Mona Nemer, has been asked to ensure government science is available to the public, that federal scientists are aware of their new freedom to speak about their work, and that science informs government decision-making.

“We know that culture change takes time. But I am making every effort to meet with scientists and to encourage them to discuss their important work with each other and with Canadians.”

CBC | Technology News