Ninety per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work.
In fact, when faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, 86 per cent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or the media without censure or retaliation from their department.
These statistics — from a 2013 survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) — inspired the union to submit an unconventional package of proposals in the current round of collective bargaining.
They include clauses relating to the public release and public discussion of scientific work, the right to participate in professional development and the protection of scientists from political or ideological interference.
As a package, the proposals are meant to
embed "scientific integrity" in government. Similar deals have been struck in the U.S. and in Europe, according to PIPSC.
The union represents more than 15,000 government-employed scientists, researchers and engineers. The proposals in question would affect the Treasury Board and 40 science-based departments and agencies.
"By putting these proposals into collective bargaining, they become enforceable rather than just ideas," said Robert MacDonald, regional director for PIPSC.
If the proposals were integrated into the parties’ collective agreement, the union could employ the grievance process to ensure the employer is held accountable.
"It reduces the risk that ideology or politics will ignore the facts and compromise scientific standards," MacDonald said. "Because when we compromise those scientific standards, we’re compromising services to Canadians."
Nearly one-quarter of federal scientists reported being directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons, according to the union’s survey.
Forty-eight per cent of the federal scientists polled said they were aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to an incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impression by the public, industry or government officials.
"Those are shocking numbers," MacDonald said. "Public scientists are paid by the taxpayers. That information should be part of the public domain."
However, when the topic was broached in the House of Commons on May 26, Robert Goguen — MP for Moncton-Riverview-Dieppe in New Brunswick — argued the dissemination of scientific information must be done within the appropriate framework. He said scientists must speak publicly within the framework of policies and procedures that govern communications within the federal government.
"The communications policy of the government of Canada provides other safeguards," Goguen said. "Departmental spokespersons, at all times, must respect privacy rights, security needs, matters before the courts, government policy, cabinet confidences and ministerial responsibility."
Goguen argued the framework of these policies is ultimately designed to protect the public interest. These limitations exist, he said, to ensure communications by public service employees are impartial.
"Open government is, among other things, about improving transparency and accountability in public institutions… Open government and open communications go hand in hand. We will protect, we will promote and we will practice these principles in an intelligent and balanced way."
Striking a balance
The parties involved need to work together to strike that balance, said Mark Frankel, director of scientific responsibility, human rights and law program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
He said interference from the federal government has played an important part in scientific work in the past.
"There are instances where governments — including the Canadian and U.S. governments — have interfered in the scientific process but, in retrospect, everyone agrees those interferences are acceptable," Frankel said.
"For example, the government has policies concerning the use of human subjects in research, so that’s an example of interference. But it’s clearly an effort by an institution external to science to carry out what it believes is an important responsibility in protecting citizens."
When politics or ideologies begin to interfere, however, and the scientific work itself is distorted or undermined, there can be serious ramifications, he said.
The work of federal scientists often informs public policy and if the relevant information is censored or distorted, it can lead to policy decisions that negatively impact Canadians.
"Public policy affects the citizenry of Canada," Frankel said. "The public’s interest is best served, I think, if the scientist has the opportunity to explore avenues of inquiry that relate to what his or her overall responsibilities are, and to communicate that information to all stakeholders. And the public is a stakeholder in all policy decisions."
Because of this, Frankel said the protection of professional development is equally as important as the protection from censorship.
Science is constantly evolving and that makes professional development a crucial aspect of scientific work, particularly when areas of science change so rapidly.
"You want your scientists to be at the top of their game, and that means interaction. It’s very important because otherwise your government scientists get left behind," he said.
The right to speak openly about their work — both with the public and their peers — will ensure federal scientists are informed by the best science, said Frankel, and federal scientists should be entrusted with the most up-to-date information as their commitment to public service makes them especially suited to work in areas that will inform public policy.
However, Frankel wondered whether collective bargaining is the best approach.
"To my knowledge, this is a very unique way of trying to accomplish something that I think most scientists would agree with and support. The catch-22, of course, is what ends up in the collective agreement and… to what extent they will have to give something up to get something," he said.
"The mechanism is interesting… it’s not necessarily a panacea to the problems Canadian scientists are facing."
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