Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests

Hundreds of federal scientists said in a survey that they had been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and thousands said they had been prevented from responding to the media or the public.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which commissioned the survey from Environics Research "to gauge the scale and impact of 'muzzling' and political interference among federal scientists," released the results Monday at a news conference. PIPSC represents 60,000 public servants across the country, including 20,000 scientists, in federal departments and agencies, including scientists involved in food and consumer product safety and environmental monitoring.

In all, the union sent invitations to participate in the survey to 15,398 federal scientists in June. A total of 4,069 responded.

Twenty four per cent of respondents said they “sometimes” or “often” were asked to exclude or alter technical information in federal government documents for non-scientific reasons. Most often, the request came from their direct supervisors, followed by business or industry, other government departments, politically appointed staff and public interest advocates.

The survey asked scientists whether they agreed with a number of statements about their ability to speak freely. It found:

37 per cent agreed that they had been prevented by public relations or management from responding to a question from the public or the media about their area of expertise in the past five years.

14 per cent agreed that they could speak freely and without constraints to the media about work they published in peer-reviewed journals.

10 per cent said they were allowed to speak freely and without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency.

In addition:

50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where the health and safety of Canadians" (or environmental sustainability) have been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work.

71 agreed that "our ability to develop policy law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference," although a greater number (81 per cent) thought underfunding compromised those abilities.

48 per cent said they were aware of cases where their department or agency “has suppressed or declined to release information, and where this led to incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impressions.”

74 per cent of respondents thought the sharing of government science findings with the Canadian public has become too restricted.

In recent years, there have been numerous complaints from scientists and the media about federal scientists being restricted from publicly talking about their research. Some complaints are being investigated by Canada's Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

Peter Bleyer, head of policy and communication for PIPSC, said this is the first time anyone has collected “quantifiable evidence” about political interference in the communication of federal science to the public.

“It’s a potential threat to all Canadians,” he said. “We need to fix it.”

Gary Corbett, president and CEO of the union, said in many cases, scientists aren’t prevented directly from speaking out, but feel a “broader chill.”

“You don’t have to walk into their office and say no,” he said. “They say themselves, ‘We live in a climate of fear.’”

Also present at the news conference was Francesca Grifo, senior scientist with the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that started a campaign to address “suppression and distortion” of science in the U.S.  in 2004. Grifo said the results of surveys of U.S. federal scientists between 2005 and 2007 that documented their experiences, as the PIPSC survey does, “led to significant and sustained change in the U.S.”

Paul Dufour, adjunct professor at the Institute of Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, said the new PIPSC survey highlights “what appears to be a pattern of interference in the ability of government scientists to actually communicate to the general public their science and the findings of their science without being controlled.” That is something that should concern the public, he added.

Dufour, principal of the science policy consulting firm PaulicyWorks, who once served as interim executive director at the former Office of the National Science Adviser to the Canadian government, added that the report's clear message means it could potentially generate constructive dialogue to improve the relationship between the federal government and its scientists.

Patrick Fafard, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former public servant, noted that the results of the survey are self-reported, and therefore "need to be taken with a grain of salt."

Although only 26 per cent of federal scientists contacted responded to the survey, Derek Leebosh, vice-president of public affairs for Environics Research Group, said he believes the results are representative of federal scientists as a whole, since the demographics of the respondents mirrored those of all federal scientists. He added that the response rate of 26 per cent was higher than in other surveys where the results were found to be representative.

Fafard said what concerned him the most about the survey results was that so many scientists reported cases in which the health or safety of Canadians may have been at risk. However, he said it was hard to tell how big a problem this was, since threats to health and safety were combined with threats to environmental sustainability, which he considers less of an urgent concern.

He added that the government has been tightening its control over the communications of all public servants — not just scientists — for 15 or 20 years, although he thinks it has accelerated since the arrival of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

The government could be doing that for many reasons, he added, but “if the control of public servant speech is purely about short-term political advantage, that’s a bad thing.”

Asked for a government response to the survey, Minister of State for Science and Technology Greg Rickford simply said, "Our government has made record investments in science."  

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