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

February 14, 2014 | 10:51 am
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

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.