Time to lift the muzzle on scientific research

Are Canadian scientists being muzzled? Yes. And badly.

Some 90 per cent of federal scientists cannot speak freely.

Seventy-one per cent agree that the ability to develop policy, law, and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference.

About 24 per cent of our public service scientists have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a federal government document.

In the past five years, 37 per cent of scientists, when asked a question by the public or the media on a topic on which they have the expertise to answer, have been prevented from doing so by federal public relations or management.

In November 2007, Environment Canada floated a media relations policy in which all requests for interviews with scientists had to be coordinated by communications staff. No longer could scientists and researchers freely share their findings with the public or journalists. Pre-approval from government media relations departments (i.e. spin doctors) was required and in an almost Orwellian style scientists have been accompanied at interviews by media relations staff.

Are our scientists being muzzled? Yes.  And badly.

These alarming statistics are contained in a survey conducted by the Environics Research Group and commissioned by The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union representing scientists and other professionals in Canada. . The survey entitled The Big Chill, Silencing Public Interest Science, was released late last year and represented the responses of 4,069 members.

“Significantly, half of federal scientists (50 per cent) report being aware of actual cases in which the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work,” the report stated. “Nearly half (48 per cent) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, regulated industry, the media, and/or government officials.”

Last week, the CBC’s Fifth Estate aired an explosive documentary Silence of the Labs that portrayed shocking stories of the dismissal of scientists and cancellation of entire research and science programs of vital concern to Canadians.

“They highlighted, in gripping detail, the threat faced by science under the current government,” said Dr. Tom Duck, associate professor, Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University. “The story told by marine toxicologist Peter Ross was incredibly compelling.  His dismissal, and the elimination of the entire Marine Contaminants Program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (55 people!) should be cause of concern for all Canadians.  How is it possible that Canada is no longer monitoring contaminants in its coastal waters?”

Duck co-founded the world-renowned Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) that suffered drastic budget cuts in 2012. A tiny grant was re-instated in 2013 ($5 million over five years) but it was insufficient to save the research. The station closed and the research group left.

In the past five years, the feds have dismissed over 2,000 scientists, moth-balled hundreds of programs and crippled world-renowned research facilities because of lost funding.

“What the CBC presented was the tip of the iceberg,” said Duck. “The elimination of scientific capabilities has occurred across the federal government and also at our universities.  Both Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada have been badly damaged.  The National Research Council (NRC) is a complete disaster.  The government’s muzzling of scientists is by now well known, and is intolerable in a democratic society.”

He emphasized that this isn’t politics as usual. This is a crisis and will be felt by Canadians for generations to come.

“We are now apparently entering a new age of governing in the dark.  It is time to turn on the light.”