Canada’s Unmuzzled Scientists Call for Protection From Future Muzzling

Canadian scientists Justin Trudeau

It already feels like a long time ago.

Remember way, way back when Canada’s federal scientists were shackled to their laboratory tables, unable to speak out or walk freely in the light of day?

I don’t mean to sound trivial; the war on science in Canada was real and severe in its implications and in some places devastating in its consequences.

But looking back on what Canadians are calling the ‘dark decade’ already feels ridiculous somehow, like it’s a caricature of our past reality. How did things get so bad?

That’s something the scientific community at large is asking itself, in a serious attempt to prevent ideology-driven, anti-science policies from taking root once again.

“Science should never be silenced again,” Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union representing more than 15,000 federal scientists, said in a statement released Wednesday.

PIPSC, as well as the science-advocacy group Evidence for Democracy (E4D), released an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as well as ­to science ministers Kirsty Duncan and Navdeep Bains, requesting policies be put in place to protect the scientific integrity of Canada’s public employees.

(Full disclosure: I recently became a volunteer member of Evidence for Democracy’s board of directors.)

The two groups say they commend the Liberal government for restoring the mandatory long-form census in Canada as well as lifting strict communications procedures that prevented federal scientists from speaking to the media or the public without upper level bureaucratic oversight.

In the joint letter released today, the groups are calling on the government to take their effort to restore scientific integrity in Canada a step further.

“The government clearly supports science integrity — now we need them to safeguard it from future attacks,” Katie Gibbs, executive director of E4D, said.

“Creating strong science integrity policies in all federal science-based departments will go a long way to ensuring that critically important government research is available to the public and used in policy development.”

The letter also requests scientific integrity provisions be added to collective bargaining agreements, to ensure federal employees have an enshrined right to work and communicate freely without fear of censure.

According to Daviau, having clear rules in place for scientists is critical for the restoration of scientific integrity at the federal level.

“By including the right of scientists to speak in collective agreements we can ensure there exists a consistent policy and a binding process to resolve disputes as well as prevent in future the kind of chill imposed by communications policies under the Harper government,” she said.

The open letter comes just one day after the release of a report from the Institute for Research on Public Policy and the Canadian Academy of Engineering that calls for the better use of science in the creation of public policy.

“As governments grapple with evermore complex policy problems, science and technology must play a bigger role in providing an evidence base for decisions and supporting government efforts to manage risk and uncertainty,” Pierre Lortie, president of the Canadian Academy of Engineering, said in a release.

The report calls on the Liberal government to foster informed debate by making research used in decision-making more readily available to the public, to strengthen internal decision-making policy, establish a national science advisory board and build bridges between parliamentarians and the scientific community.

Graham Fox, president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, notes scientific evidence is meant to play a role in decisions, but that other factors are always taken into consideration.

“Of course, evidence should weigh heavily in the balance, but it will not necessarily replace or trump budget considerations, citizens’ concerns, campaign commitments and other considerations,” Fox said.

“The challenge is not to remove politics from decision-making, but rather to create an en­vironment in which the public debate is appropriately informed by science.”

Image: PMO photo gallery

This article was originally published on DeSmog Blog
Carol Linnit is a writer and researcher focusing on energy development, environmental policy, wildlife, Canadian politics, transparency and democracy. She joined DeSmog in June 2010 as a researcher, focusing much of her time on the natural gas industry and hydraulic fracturing.