Canada’s federal scientists have won the right to speak freely about their research and science without upper level bureaucratic control, a feature central to restrictive communications protocols under the Harper government.
The move to officially unmuzzle scientists comes after the Professional Institute of Public Service Canada (PIPSC), Canada’s largest union federal employees including 15,000 scientists, researchers and engineers, negotiated to include scientists’ right to speak in a collective agreement deal.
“This is an enormous win not only for federal scientists but for all Canadians,” PIPSC President Debi Daviau said in a statement.
“Following the defeat last year of the Harper government, we vowed that no government should ever again silence science. This new provision will help ensure that remains the case now and in the future.”
A memorandum of agreement contained in new member agreements states employees “shall have the right to express themselves on science and their research, with respecting the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector adopted on April 2, 2012, without being designated as an official media spokesperson.”
The language was agreed to in a tentative deal with the federal government, but Daviau said she expected it to be adopted by other federal agencies like the National Research Council, Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in future negotiations.
Under the former Conservative government scientists were unable to speak with media or members of the public without first gaining approval of departmental superiors, a procedure that opened even basic interview requests up to political interference and message control.
In 2013, PIPSC released a report that found 86 per cent of federal scientists surveyed believed they could not inform the public about a departmental decision that could harm the environment or public health and safety without fear of reprisal.
Scientists also reported being unable to provide basic answers related to their research on topics as uncontroversial as snowfall pattern.
As DeSmog Canada has previously reported, media requests on potentially controversial topics like the oilsands or marine contamination were subject to significant departmental oversight. Scientists were often denied the right to give interviews or were chaperoned by bureaucratic ‘minders’ who limited interviews to pre-determined topics.
Information requests were often responded to by communications staff rather than scientists, even if the subject matter pertained to an expert federal scientist’s own research and even when that scientist was media trained.
Kathleen Walsh, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a science advocacy group launched in 2012 to improve scientific integrity in Canada described the new policy as historic.
“We haven’t seen anything like this before,” she said. “It’s a pretty big win for Canadian scientists and Canadians.”
“In an era of post-truth and fake news I think it’s really important for Canadians to know they are hearing from experts and scientists without political interference on their research or their findings.”
In March, Evidence for Democracy sent an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Information, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains and Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, calling on the government to free federal scientists and researchers to pursue public-interest science.
Over 5,500 Canadians signed the open letter, which also called on the government to enshrine scientists’ right to speak in collective agreements.
The new language will make it harder for current and future governments to interfere with scientific communication.
“But the right to speak is only one part of scientific integrity,” Walsh added. “There are a number of things the federal government can do to bolster science integrity in federal science…like ensuring federal science is free from undue corporate influence…and ensuring there is whistleblower protection.”
“It’s not just about how federal science is created or communicated but also how it’s used,” Walsh said.
Canada recently announced the creation of a Chief Science Advisor position and is currently conducting a review of Canada’s federal environment assessment act — two moves Walsh sees as promising.
“I’m cautiously hopeful,” Walsh said.
Giving scientists the ability to freely communicate is also seen as a strong step in the right direction.
“Governments and government policies come and go, but the right of Canadians to unbiased scientific information from their own scientists should survive both,” Daviau said.
“At a time when the United States is at renewed risk of turning its back on science and evidence-based public policy, it is essential that government scientists in Canada and other countries be assured safeguards that protect their right to speak and the public’s right to know.”
Image: Stand up for science rally in Vancouver, 2013. Photo: Zack Embree