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Federal scientists to mount ‘evidence-based’ campaign against government cuts, being muzzled

By Rachel Aiello      

While Conservatives continue to point to their ‘record’ research investments.

The upcoming election is going to be the most important election for science that Canada has seen, say the NDP and Liberal science and technology critics.
NDP MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby-Douglas, B.C.) and Liberal MP Ted Hsu (Kingston and the Islands, Ont.) both said they think science is set to become a bigger election issue than it has in any recent history.
This, they say, in part will be fuelled by a recent decision from the largest public service union in Canada representing scientists and professionals employed by the federal government. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) represents 60,000 government workers, including over 15,000 federal scientists and researchers, and in the lead up to the 2015 election the union has decided to become more politically active.
The move is an unprecedented step from the union, breaking from its non-partisan position, to run an “evidence-based” campaign aimed at informing voters of the current government’s record.  
“Our members who are scientists are certainly feeling the brunt of the policies and cuts that have led us to take this exceptional position,” said Peter Bleyer, a special adviser to PIPSC president Debi Daviau, speaking on her behalf in an interview with The Hill Times.
PIPSC is still figuring out what exactly its information campaign will look like, but Mr. Bleyer said they want to be professional, non-partisan and use evidence to make their case.
“My hope would be the scientists would not have been put in this position, it’s much better to have scientists in their labs and teaching students or issuing important reports, than up on Parliament Hill protesting,” said Mr. Stewart.
It will be interesting to see what kind of effect scientists in both the private and public sector will have on the federal election, as they are more politically engaged now than five years ago, said Mr. Hsu.
Mr. Stewart said he hears from government scientists daily who are experiencing government interference in their work, or not being allowed to comment as an expert in their field of study.
“I’m in contact with about 10,000 scientists across Canada and what I’ve found is that they feel like they just have no choice, if they don’t stand up now for science in Canada then all would be lost if we have the same election results as last time,” said Mr. Stewart, who described what’s happening to scientists as “un-Canadian.”
Mr. Hsu said he too is all too familiar with seeing long email chains from government departments deciding whether or not a particular researcher can speak to the media or not.
“I’ve had scientists approach me and say, ‘I wrote this paper and then some people tried to change the wording and I think it’s more than just cosmetic, it changes what we’re actually trying to say.’ … I’ve also had the experience of trying to phone up somebody I had met before to say, ‘Oh can I ask you something?’ and they said, ‘Oh, well please contact the minister’s office,’” said Mr. Hsu, who explained that he had tried to email a friend from graduate school who was a government scientist and got that “terse reply.”
“Even the international community is now looking at it going, ‘Boy your government’s destroying science in Canada,” said Mr. Stewart.
However, the government points to its investments in research resources, representing the largest annual increase in research support through granting councils in over a decade, once they have been fully phased in.
“As the minister of state responsible for the National Research Council (NRC), I can say international scientific collaboration at the NRC is important. Collaboration allows our scientists to share knowledge and leverage resources, which spur greater innovation and commercialization for Canadian businesses,” said Minister of State for Science and Technology Ed Holder (London West, Ont.), in an email to The Hill Times.
In 2013, PIPSC released a survey of government scientists they commissioned called “The Big Chill,” which found that 90 per cent of scientists in the public service feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and believe that they should be able to. Nearly half of those surveyed, 48 per cent, said they were aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry or other government officials, and nearly one quarter of respondents, and 24 per cent had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons.
Mr. Bleyer said the response from government to these findings has been underwhelming, with only a few agencies following up to ask for more information. But he said it did give the people who had been anecdotally experiencing the government’s interference, some quantitative data and evidence to support their argument for change.
A subsequent study by Evidence for Democracy echoed PIPSC’s findings, scoring the media policies of each government department and found that they overwhelmingly didn’t support open communication between scientists and the media, with the Canada Space Agency, PWGSC, Industry Canada, and Natural Resources Canada scoring the lowest.
The NRC scored among the highest on the study. This study was then followed by an open letter from the Union of Concerned Scientists, signed by more than 800 scientists outside of Canada, from 32 countries, asking Mr. Harper to end the “burdensome restrictions on scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”
Mr. Bleyer said this all adds to the fodder for change, and noted that they’re still waiting on Canada’s Information Commissioner to release her report into her office’s investigation of allegations that the federal government is muzzling its scientists.
When asked about the ability of scientists to speak publicly about their research—outside of science publications and peer-reviewed papers—without political interference or departmental approval Mr. Holder maintained that ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments but scientists are “readily available to share their research with Canadians,” and pointed to the research federal scientists have shared in the last year.
“Canadian federal departments and agencies produce enormous amounts of public research, over 4,000 science publications per year in areas important to the health, safety, and economic prosperity which is shared with Canadians. As a case in point, Environment Canada fielded nearly 2,500 media inquiries last year, Fisheries and Oceans Canada fielded 1,600 media inquiries and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists fielded 359 media interviews and published last year,” stated Mr. Holder.
Last week, during an infrastructure spending announcement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) said that over the next three years, part of the $5.8-billion the government is planning to spend would go towards repairing and expanding federal labs and research facilities.
But both opposition parties said the Conservative approach to science is one-dimensional, with a focus on applied science and research that can see an economic return, as opposed to the other side of science which is done for the “common good” to better inform and protect Canadians, as Mr. Hsu put it.
“They want widgets but that’s not how science works, you can’t go to a scientist and say, ‘Okay come up with the next big thing that’s going to develop a giant industry in Canada.’ I don’t think they even understand that basic fundamental,” said Mr. Stewart.
In response to questions about the government’s focus when it comes to Canada’s investments in science research, Mr. Holder stated the government’s investments continue to “push the boundaries of knowledge, create jobs and prosperity while improving the quality of life of Canadians.”
“One of the most important examples in Economic Action Plan 2014 is an investment of $1.5-billion of new money toward the creation of the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, which will allow universities and colleges to leverage world-class strengths into world-leading research that will create long-term benefits for Canada. Imagine what Sir Frederick Banting could have achieved had he had an investment on that scale at his disposal,” stated Mr. Holder.
In addition to restoring scientific integrity, the opposition critics would push to implement some form of in-house science expert(s) for oversight when it comes to shaping policies. Mr. Stewart has put forward a private member’s bill, Bill C-558, the Parliamentary Science Officer Act, to create a position for an officer of Parliament. Last week, the bill was endorsed by a handful of professors and advisers on science and policy, including PIPSC, the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, and Katie Gibbs, an author on the Evidence for Democracy report.
Mr. Hsu said the Liberals would be supportive of Bill C-558, but proposed to take it a step further, suggesting each party have their own internal science adviser.
“It’s really important to have somebody at the table who can give good science advice, good science policy and scientifically based advice, but who is a political insider who can sit there when those political conversations take place. And that’s something a parliamentary science officer could not do because that office would be a non-partisan, neutral office,” said Mr. Hsu. “It’s important to have science advice on both sides.”
As for what will come in the short-term, it has yet to be seen how PIPSC’s decision will play out, but the union hopes its attempts to defend their members’ ability to do their job doesn’t end up resulting in employment action, a concern they have given the government’s moves in recent years. The opposition critics hope it doesn’t backfire, resulting in further clampdown.
“I think, as an organization, the union has to say this government policy is not good, it’s not consistent with what our profession stands for; facts and evidence-based policy and the ability to communicate facts about nature to the public,” said Mr. Hsu.
“When you’re mobilizing the scientists against you, you know you’ve got problems en masse,” said Mr. Stewart.
The Hill Times

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