Le Blogue Broadbent

The politics of muzzling government scientists

It isn't easy being a scientist for the federal government these days. That's the clear message from new research released by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC).

The union commissioned Environics Canada to "gauge the scale and impact of 'muzzling' and political interference among federal scientists." Over 15,000 were invited to participate in the survey, and about 4,000 took up the offer. The results, released Monday, are startling.

Hundreds of respondents confirmed they’d been asked to "exclude or alter technical information in government documents for non-scientific reasons." Thousands said they’d "been prevented from responding to the media or the public."

If you're Philip Cross, a fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, it's "perfectly reasonable for management to exercise its right to control what is communicated to the media."

"This is not blocking scientists from doing their work, it's management exercising its right to control what is communicated to the media." Besides, "most of what the federal government scientists do is monitoring and collecting data, which is then analyzed and debated by the larger academic community.... The government has every right to remind the scientists who monitor this data not to speculate about how the data might be interpreted by more-qualified experts," Cross wrote Tuesday in an op-ed piece in the National Post.  

Is this all that's going on inside the federal government? Check out these numbers from the PIPSC survey:

24% say they’ve been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons.

48% say they're aware of cases where their department or agency has "suppressed or declined to release information," leading to "incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions."

50% say they are aware of "cases where the health and safety of Canadians" or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference in their scientific work.

86% say they don’t feel they could share their work with the public without fear of censure or retaliation from their department.

90% say they don’t feel like they can speak freely to the media about the scientific work they do.

Photo: jennfarr. Used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence.