More than half of Canadian government scientists still feel muzzled by their public service managers, more than two years after the newly-elected Trudeau government warmly championed their right to speak freely about their research, and the country’s need for them to do so.
A summer 2017 survey by Environics Research, commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents federal scientists, asked respondents “if they agreed with the statement ‘I am allowed to speak freely and without constraints to the media about work I do at my Department/Agency,” CBC reports. “53% of 3,025 respondents answered ‘No’.”
In his November 12, 2015 mandate letter to Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listed free speech for scientists as her first priority. He instructed Duncan, a former IPCC author in her own right, to establish the position of Chief Science Officer, to “ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.”
As well, after the Trudeau government took office, “cabinet ministers like Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, publicly announced that scientists were free to speak,” CBC recalls. PIPSC “has since negotiated language in federal scientists’ contracts that protect their right to speak freely about their work and their science.”
But while the Environics data show marked improvement over a similar poll in 2013, when 90% of respondents reported being “muzzled” under the Harper government, it’s “unacceptable” that 53% still feel constrained, said PIPSC President Debi Daviau.
The research showed that 40% of respondents (down from 71% in 2013) felt their “ability to develop policy, law, and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference,” CBC notes. And “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%, compared to 88% in 2013.”
PIPSC’s summary of the research picks up on “anecdotal” evidence that attributes lingering resistance to scientists speaking up to “managers who are misinformed or even unwilling to change,” CBC notes. 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.”
Meanwhile, Daviau called for faster action on a set of 2017 Parliamentary committee recommendations on whistleblower protection. “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,” she said.