Work to be done now that muzzle is off government scientists

Canada Politics
Work to be done now that muzzle is off government scientists

The unmuzzling of government scientists has been one of the earliest acts of the new Liberal government, but it’ll take time to undo the damage caused by the old Harper era policy.

Scientists previously had to follow the strict policy on seeking departmental approval in order to speak to members of the media, under a rule set by the Conservative government. But the new government, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has already signalled its intentions of unmuzzling scientists.

“Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect,” Navdeep Bains, minister of innovation, science and economic development, said in a statement on Friday. “That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.”

Though some nervousness remains about where the line now lies, scientists are welcoming the policy shift.

“Absolutely it’s a huge first step and we’re thrilled to see it happen so far,” Katie Gibbs, executive director of the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, tells Yahoo Canada News. “But we want to make sure that we actually get this written down and enshrined as the new way forward.”

Years of the restrictive policy under the past government has led to changes that will take time to undo, regardless of the swift change in policy.

“The damage is that you demoralize the group,” public service expert Donald Savoie tells Yahoo Canada News.

Under the old policy that restricted public servants from discussing their work with the media or presenting it at conferences, it was hard for scientists to refer to themselves as such when they couldn’t participate in the practice of sharing their findings with others in the field, explains Savoie, a professor in the department of public administration at Université de Moncton.

“It becomes part of the culture and part of your working environment,” Gibbs says of the past policies and how they’ve affected public scientists in Canada. “I do think it will take longer to see the culture change.”

The Professional Institute of the Public Service in Canada (PIPSC), a union representing more than 15,000 government scientists, researchers and engineers, also has concerns that go beyond simply allowing scientists to speak freely to the media. Those include the ability to attend conferences, and freedom from government requests to alter or omit information. A survey done by the union in 2013 found that hundreds of federal scientists had been asked to change information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and thousands had been prevented from speaking with the media or the public about their work.

And under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, damage was done because of that policy, the union says. And that damage — which includes lessened relationships between government agencies and NGOs, and policy decisions that didn’t account for the advice of scientific advisors — can’t be undone overnight.

“The real harm of that was that Canadians just weren’t getting important information on important issues, from health to climate change,” Gibbs says about the longer-term affects of the Conservative policy. “And going beyond the muzzling is the actual loss of our scientific capacity.”

More than 2,000 federal scientists were let go over the past decade, she says, and there aren’t yet any explicit promises to restore the funding that would restore those positions.

Scientists have spoken out about how their muzzling has hurt science and the public service in Canada. Gibbs mentioned the cases of an Environment Canada researcher prevented from speaking about his research on contaminants in wildlife near the oilsands, and Canadian Ice Services scientists who weren’t allowed in 2012 to hold a public briefing on low ice levels in the Arctic. A former public scientist and shark expert, Steve Campana, said that Conservative policies undermined the ability of federal government scientists to mentor graduate students, for example, or to receive quality training.

Campana himself left the public service after 32 years because of what he says was a hampering of the work of federal scientists by the previous government. Others have spoken out about specific cases of scientists being prevented from releasing certain information. For example, Thomas Duck of Dalhousie University said that Environment Canada scientists were prevented from speaking to reporters about their discovery of a large ozone hole over the Northern Hemisphere. And Kristi Miller, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said that the previous government hadn’t allowed her to discuss her research on the sockeye salmon collapse in the Fraser River.

“In a lot of these cases the science, it still sort of gets out there but often Canadian journalists have to interview American scientists,” Gibbs says. “Canadians are really missing out on that Canadian voice.”

Better for science

But there are responsibilities that come with the new openness, Savoie says. Scientists have to be careful not to wade into issues of policy and to maintain their impartiality — something he says that the great majority of scientists understand, but didn’t have to worry about when they were simply not allowed to speak to the press at all.

“It was easier before, under Harper,” Savoie says of sticking to the research. “You just shut up.”

But a system of openness that trusts researchers to get it right, and allows them to share and discuss their work in order to improve it, is far better for science and the public service in Canada, he says.

And public scientists are welcoming the changes, and crediting their advocacy in part with making them possible. The PIPSC finished up its 2015 Annual General Meeting in Ottawa by celebrating the union’s role in the reinstatement of the long-form census and the unmuzzling of scientists by the new Liberal government.

The union must ensure that the ability of its members to communicate with the Canadian public is protected in the future through the inclusion of scientific integrity clauses in their collective agreements, PIPSC president Debi Daviau says in a statement.

The PIPSC tabled a package of demands related to “scientific integrity” during collective bargaining with the Conservative government earlier this year. The union returns to collective bargaining in January.

While he welcomes the government’s new openness, it remains to be seen how the new changes in policy will benefit the public service in Canada down the road, Savoie says.

“The test is not today,” he says. “The test will be in a year or two.”