New policy prevents the government from muzzling scientists

Aug 1, 2018 | Biz/Tech

Federal Minister of Science Kristy Duncan. (FLICKR/stockcatalog)

Mickal Aranha

The federal government has released a policy protecting scientists from political interference and muzzling.

The union representing scientists and researchers of Canada criticized the Stephen Harper  Conservative government of muzzling scientists working on climate change and other politically sensitive issues.

In March, after a five-year investigation, Canada’s Information Commissioner confirmed the accusations were justified. Harper’s government had prevented scientists from speaking freely to the media and public about their work without approval from managers, effectively muzzling the experts.

The new policy requires government departments to have “scientific integrity policies” by the end of this year.

Ken Coates, public policy professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the government is trying to establish new norms and clearly understood obligations on the part of departments to collect and use scientific evidence properly.

“The government has made it clear that they’re committed to evidence-based decision making and that means they have to make it clear how they’re judging whether someone’s material is done properly, if it’s according to ethical standards, and whether it’s accurate and reliable,” he said.

The policy was developed by Chief Science Advisor Mona Nemer with input from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union representing 16,000 federal government scientists.

“The policy is an explosive criticism of the previous government,” Coates said.

“It should make us talk more about what the role of public science is in Canada. And that is something that we’ve actually taken for granted for a very long time,” he said.

The government is asking each federal department to deal with the policy in its own way.

Normally, a vague policy would be put forward saying the government is committed to scientific integrity, but without addressing the specific realities of departments like Statistics Canada and Health Canada, said Coates.

“That doesn’t explain the difference between departments that have a huge set of obligations about personal privacy, for example, relating to the police, border security and things of that sort, and departments that are dealing with more macro data like the department of agriculture,” he said.

“What you want is for units to take responsibility for this as it related to their own work,” Coates said

He expects there will be some debates about climate change going forward. Coates says the issue is not about the science itself but how the data is interpreted as one can come to multiple interpretations of the same data and that’s where it gets provocative and controversial.

In February, a survey by PIPSC showed that 53 per cent of scientists felt they couldn’t speak freely to the media about their work. This is a improvement compared to a 2013 survey where 90 per cent of scientists felt they couldn’t speak freely.

However, Coates says the current government’s progress toward reversing restrictions imposed by the Harper government has been slow.

“This being released in the middle of the summer when few people are paying attention says it isn’t the most important thing on their list, that they’ve got other issues that are more pressing,” Coates said.

“If you want to get a really high-profile response, this is probably not the best way to do it,” he says.