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Why Canada needs a Parliamentary science officer

By NDP MP Kennedy Stewart      

Beginning with the elimination of Canada’s national science advisor in 2008, the Harper government has used every tool at its disposal to prevent, limit, and restrict public scientists from sharing their research findings with Canadians and policy-makers. Statistics Canada data reveals the Conservatives have slashed over $1-billion in S&T funding and laid off 4000 federal researchers since forming a majority in 2011.
Now, an open letter signed by more 800 independent scientists from 32 countries urges the government to restore funding for public science and end the burdensome restrictions on communication and collaboration faced by Canadian scientists. The Harper government’s actions continue to draw criticisms from our peers abroad, including the prestigious journal Nature. Last year, The New York Times argued nothing the Bush administration perpetrated against the U.S. scientific community even “came close to what is being done in Canada.”
Although our former environment minister once insisted the issue of muzzled scientists was driven by a “very small number of Canadian journalists who believe that they’re the centres of their respective universes and deserve access to our scientists on their timeline,” the evidence of Conservative muzzling and censorship continues to mount. As the information commissioner completes her investigation into the communication policies of federal departments, a recent survey conducted by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada found that:
Nine out of 10 federal scientists feel they are not allowed to speak freely and without constraints to the media about their research.
Faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 84 per cent of respondents indicated they could not share these concerns with the public or media without fear of censure or retaliation.
Nearly half of federal scientists are aware of actual cases in which the release of information was suppressed or declined—leading to incomplete, inaccurate or misleading impressions.
One-quarter of respondents had been directly asked—for non-scientific reasons— to exclude or alter technical information in an official government document.
Along with tarnishing Canada’s reputation as a knowledge leader, government restrictions on the free flow of scientific knowledge undermine our ability to make public policy decisions using the best evidence and data available. Regardless of the policy issue in question—environmental protection, innovation policy, health care, or criminal justice— decision-makers (and the public) cannot make prudent choices if they are denied timely access to relevant information. This is an issue that strikes at the very core of our democratic process.
That’s why New Democrats have put forward a concrete plan to end Conservative muzzling once and for all. Based on recent policies implemented by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, Motion 453 would allow government scientists to speak publicly about their research and prohibit ministerial staff from unduly limiting media access or suppressing scientific results.
Moving forward, we also need a new champion for science in Ottawa. Tabled in the House of Commons last fall, Bill C-558 aims to create an independent Parliamentary science officer tasked with providing politicians with unbiased information and sound advice.
Modelled off similar agencies in other countries, such as the U.K.’s Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, this office would shine an essential light on the use (and misuse) of evidence by federal departments and agencies, as well as revitalize the exchange of knowledge between the research community and Parliamentarians. Crucially, its mandate and independence would be guaranteed by legislation (something the former national science adviser was never given by the previous Liberal government, unfortunately.)
It’s time to promote real transparency and to chart a bold new course for science in Canada. To drive innovation and fact-based policy, we need to give science and research a stronger voice in the federal government. Taking the muzzle off of our talented researchers and establishing an independent science watchdog for Parliament are crucial steps in the right direction.
NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, PhD, who represents Burnaby-Douglas, B.C., is his party’s critic for science and technology, and an associate professor on-leave from Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy.
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