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An Update on Scientific Integrity in Canada, and How Scientists In Other Countries Can Help

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In recent years, many Canadians have become more and more concerned about political interference in the work of Canadian government scientists, and a new report from PIPSC, the employee union that represents many of these scientists, provides little comfort that the situation will improve anytime soon. UCS has developed an open letter that allows non-Canadian scientists to show support for their Canadian government peers. You can read the letter and sign it here.

I can’t possibly fully summarize all that’s been happening in a single blog post, but here are some brief highlights:

Journalists and scientists first sounded the alarm on a national stage almost exactly two years ago at an international scientific meeting in Vancouver. Several journalism societies issued an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper protesting what they saw as the “muzzling” of government scientists and giving several examples of where scientists were prevented from speaking to the media.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne (foreground) visits the University of Toronto Chemical Laboratory, where scientists are conducting freshwater research. Ontario is working collaboratively with the governments and other partners to keep the Experimental Lakes Area open after the research site was suddenly defunded by the federal government after 45 years. Photo: Government of Ontario

It’s gone downhill from there. The Canadian watchdog group Democracy Watch partnered with the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic to develop a very detailed report on the clampdown on scientist speech. The authors asked the government’s Information Commissioner to investigate censorship of science and scientists, which she has agreed to do.

The problems have gone well beyond censorship to include deep cuts to basic research programs that provide critical information to protect human health and the environment. One example is with the proposed closure of the Experimental Lakes Area, a unique, pristine, 45-year-old research site with 58 lakes that has brought forth important science on issues such as acid rain and phosphates in laundry detergents. One doctoral student put her research aside and led a so-far-successful campaign to save the research site with private and provincial government funding.

Another casualty has been the dismantling of the science libraries within the Department of Fisheries, reducing the effectiveness of scientists who depend on the libraries and librarians for research assistance. Those who watched political interference in science during the Bush administration here in the United States will see significant parallels between this situation and the closure of EPA science libraries, expertly chronicled by the American Library Association.

In the midst of all of this anecdotal evidence, the government employees union PIPSC decided to conduct a massive survey of its scientist members. The survey results paint a grim picture of the state of science within the Canadian government. More than four thousand scientists provided answers to the survey, and the numbers are not encouraging. So far, the union has released two reports stemming from the survey, found here and here. Among the most startling takeaways:

  • The vast majority of respondents–over 90 percent–felt they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about their research and analysis, with most of those fearing retaliation for doing so.
  • Hundreds of scientists reported having been asked to “exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons” in their work.
  • 8 out of 10 scientists at the National Research Council believe Canada has done a worse job over the past five years advancing the country’s international standing in technology and innovation.
  • Nearly three quarters of those who responded feel that new departmental policies compromise their ability to collaborate with colleagues in other countries; many have trouble getting approval to attend scientific meetings.

Grassroots groups such as Evidence for Democracy have sprouted up to challenge the censorship and cuts. But there is a long way to go. Here in the U.S., we spent years documenting the problem, developing solutions, and pushing for reforms to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making, and we’re still far from done. We need to show Canada that the world is watching, and signing the open letter to Stephen Harper is a good first step.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , , , ,

About the author: Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science. See Michael's full bio.

Support from UCS members make work like this possible. Will you join us? Help UCS advance independent science for a healthy environment and a safer world.

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3 Responses

  1. I have read the full report and have many concerns myself….
    The top 3 flaws with the State Dept.’s Keystone study
    1. The questionable assumption that tar-sands development is inevitable
    Lack of context
    2Lack of Context … State’s report did not consider Keystone in relation to other proposed pipeline projects — like an expansion of Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper Pipeline, which runs from the Alberta tar sands to Superior, Wis. Sixteen environmental organizations sent a letter to State saying it should have considered this larger context. The letter observed, “The Supreme Court has recognized that ‘when several proposals … that will have cumulative or synergistic environmental impact upon a region are pending concurrently before an agency, their environmental consequences must be considered together.
    3. Conflict of interest Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the consulting firm contracted to do the environmental impact study, was recommended to State by TransCanada, the company that wants to build the pipeline.
    http://grist.org/climate-energy/the-top-3-flaws-with-the-state-dept-s-keystone-study/#.UwD5pNNx-OF

  2. Jo Fillion says:

    Worth watching : CBC Public Canadian TV featured on January 10th, 2014 an exclusive on the “decline” of public science in Canada, in case you might need further background.

    Silence of the Labs
    On CBC, The fifth Estate
    http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/2013-2014/the-silence-of-the-labs

    Scientists across the country are expressing growing alarm that federal cutbacks to research programs monitoring areas that range from climate change and ocean habitats to public health will deprive Canadians of crucial information.

    “What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge, and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world,” said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

    In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding. Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down.

    The fifth estate requested interviews with two senior bureaucrats and four cabinet ministers with responsibility for resources, the environment and science. All of those requests were denied.

    On Tuesday, the fifth estate received a statement from the office of Greg Rickford, Minister of State for Science and Technology, and the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario.

    “Our government has made record investments in science,” it stated. “We are working to strengthen partnerships to get more ideas from the lab to the marketplace and increase our wealth of knowledge. Research is vibrant and flourishing right across the country.”

    But members of the scientific community disagree. CBC’s the fifth estate spoke to scientists across the country who are concerned that Canadians will suffer if their elected leaders have to make policy decisions without the benefit of independent, fact-based science.

  3. With massive cuts by Ottawa to everything from food inspections to water quality and climate change and the dismissal of more than 2,000 federal scientists and researchers, some scientists have become unlikely radicals — denouncing what they call a politically-driven war on knowledge”
    If you’re wondering what is going on in Canada….
    http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/ID/2429411271/
    Scientist, activists and Our First Nations People, environmentalists and concerned citizens are all being silenced, including our free speech on news blogs… we are very discouraged to see whats happening..even referring to many of us as enemies and economical terrorists to intimidate us, all so they can shove that tarsands pipelines through…
    Our PM Stephen Harper is a fundamental evangelist, (which is fine) but he does not believe “we” need to be concerned about climate change.. Not Fine! http://www.cornwallalliance.org/articles/read/an-evangelical-declaration-on-global-warming/