Cuts and political interference threaten research, say provincial scientists

A series of cutbacks and political interference is undermining the ability of provincial government scientists to produce research that affects public policy, a new report by Evidence for Democracy found yesterday.

Evidence for Democracy is a not-for-profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government.

A quarter of staff scientists working for the B.C. government has been cut in the last decade, according to the report. Of those remaining, nearly half say political interference is compromising the government's ability to develop laws and policies based on scientific research.  

Scott McCannell is the executive director for the Professional Employees Association, a labour union that represents more than 1,000 government-licensed scientists.

McCannell told Rick Cluff, host of CBC's The Early Edition that a shift in governmental regulation is undermining research and putting public safety at risk.   

​"Historically, the role of those scientists really focused on the oversight of natural resource development and the environment of British Columbia," McCannell said.

"Much of that responsibility around compliance and enforcement and regulatory oversight has been moved from the public service of British Columbia out to private industry."

The change, he said, has weakened regulation. He described cases where members of the PEA union said they had been ordered to rescind reports of non-compliance which led, in one instance, to the scientist leaving the ministry.

In another case, a member was taken off a project for expressing safety concerns.

Risk to public safety

McCannell pointed to B.C.'s 2014 Mount Polley disaster as an example of political pressure for industry development outweighing safety concerns.

"The ministry's role under the Liberal government has shifted from overseeing the mining industry and making sure that mining is done in a responsible and safe way to, in fact, just promoting mining development in British Columbia," he said.

"Mount Polley is the clearest example of a disaster that took place."  

Part of the problem is privatization, McCannell said. Another part is staffing cuts.

The report found that 68 per cent of government scientists surveyed think cutbacks are stopping them from fulfilling their ministerial duties.

"It's really a situation of rubber stamping and I think that reflects the government is bent towards industry interests above all other values," McCannell said.

The B.C. government said they could not comment at this time.  

With files from The Early Edition.

To hear the full interview, click the audio link on the upper left corner titled Cuts and political interference a threat to research, warn provincial scientists.