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Political Interference in Scientific Work – Canada

Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests

4,000 responded to survey commissioned by PIPSC to gauge political interference in science

Political Interference in Scientific Work – Canada

Image courtesy of [KROMKRATHOG] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Hundreds of federal scientists said in a survey that they had been asked to exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons, and thousands said they had been prevented from responding to the media or the public.The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which commissioned the survey from Environics Research “to gauge the scale and impact of ‘muzzling’ and political interference among federal scientists,” released the results Monday at a news conference. PIPSC represents 60,000 public servants across the country, including 20,000 scientists, in federal departments and agencies, including scientists involved in food and consumer product safety and environmental monitoring.

In all, the union sent invitations to participate in the survey to 15,398 federal scientists in June. A total of 4,069 responded.

Twenty four per cent of respondents said they “sometimes” or “often” were asked to exclude or alter technical information in federal government documents for non-scientific reasons. Most often, the request came from their direct supervisors, followed by business or industry, other government departments, politically appointed staff and public interest advocates.

The survey asked scientists whether they agreed with a number of statements about their ability to speak freely. It found:

  • 37 per cent agreed that they had been prevented by public relations or management from responding to a question from the public or the media about their area of expertise in the past five years.
  • 14 per cent agreed that they could speak freely and without constraints to the media about work they published in peer-reviewed journals.
  • 10 per cent said they were allowed to speak freely and without constraints about the work they do at their department or agency.

In addition:

  • 50 per cent of respondents said they were aware of “cases where the health and safety of Canadians” (or environmental sustainability) have been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work.
  • 71 agreed that “our ability to develop policy law and programs that are based on scientific evidence and facts has been compromised by political interference,” although a greater number (81 per cent) thought underfunding compromised those abilities.
  • 48 per cent said they were aware of cases where their department or agency “has suppressed or declined to release information, and where this led to incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impressions.”
  • 74 per cent of respondents thought the sharing of government science findings with the Canadian public has become too restricted.

In recent years, there have been numerous complaints from scientists and the media about federal scientists being restricted from publicly talking about their research. Some complaints are being investigated by Canada’s Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault.

Peter Bleyer, head of policy and communication for PIPSC, said this is the first time anyone has collected “quantifiable evidence” about political interference in the communication of federal science to the public.

“It’s a potential threat to all Canadians,” he said. “We need to fix it.”

‘Climate of fear’

Gary Corbett, president and CEO of the union, said in many cases, scientists aren’t prevented directly from speaking out, but feel a “broader chill.”

“You don’t have to walk into their office and say no,” he said. “They say themselves, ‘We live in a climate of fear.’”

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