Column: Government has a duty to let scientists speak

Without sound, peer-reviewed science, evidence-based policy decisions for the benefit of Canadians can’t be made.

Last week Canadian federal scientists, fed up with the Harper Government muzzle syndrome, went on a rant to speak publicly against the practice and demand that they be free to share their findings with the public who, through their tax dollars, pay for the research in the first place.

This obsessive micromanaging of the message has become a hallmark of the feds and the subject of the 2015 Review of Free Expression in Canada published by the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). The stats speak for themselves.

In the 2013-2014 year, only 26.9 per cent of Access to Information requests was processed by the federal government. In the last nine years, the feds have spent $57 million on external consultants to handle Access to Information requests and decide what content should be released.  In a study done by Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a leading fact-driven organization promoting transparency in government decision-making, over 85 per cent of federal departments scored a C or lower rating and four federal science departments received a failing grade when it came to openness of communication and protection against political interference, those four being the Canadian Space Agency, Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Public Works and Government Services Canada. At the top of the heap for open communication was the Department of National Defence.

CJFE approached Nanos Research to poll Canadians on their opinions about government openness, access to information, silencing scientists and digital surveillance. Canadians were pretty clear about wanting change. For 95 per cent of Canadians, improvement in access and openness was important; 94 per cent said scientists should be able to speak publicly about their research; 73 per cent were concerned about openness around levels of digital surveillance and other monitoring methods, and 71 per cent were concerned about the federal government tracking cell phone metadata without oversight or warrants from courts.

Since coming to power, the Harper’s code of silence has sunk to new lows. The government has often been in conflict with scientific research, especially when the science about climate change clashes with the energy industry.

Michael Rennie, writing in the CJFE’s report said that the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada reported in 2014 that 90 per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work and 86 per cent fear reprimand if they do which, in the professional survival of things, leads to suppressed communication.

As I wrote in this column in January 2014, federal research libraries have been closed, valuable reports sit in landfills, and scientists have been let go. Funding has been stopped for 198 research projects across Canada.

Good policy can only be made when research data provides the facts. Scientists, by nature, are a quiet, dedicated bunch bringing new information to issues of interest to Canadians and furthering understanding for, they would like to believe, better policy making.

But when a researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada released her findings that a virus may have contributed to the B.C. sockeye salmon collapse in 2009, she was barred from speaking to the press despite her work being published in the journal Science.

An Environment Canada scientist and an expert in the persistent algae known as Didymo, had his research published in BioScience. But when one reporter tried to interview him, the request generated 16 public affairs individuals spewing 110 pages of emails, resulting in no interview. Why? Didymo growth could be linked to global warming making Didymo a no-go, politically sensitive topic. Go figure.

Without sound, peer-reviewed science, evidence-based policy decisions for the benefit of Canadians can’t be made. Canadians have a right to know what that science is.

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