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Half of Canada's Government Scientists Still Feel Like They Are Being Silenced


23 FEB 2018

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have campaigned on a promise to let scientists speak, but a new survey has found 53 percent of Canada's government scientists still feel like they cannot talk freely with the media about their work.


The survey, which was released by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) union, showed improvement from a similar poll taken in 2013.

Five years ago was a particularly tense time for the Canadian scientific community, as the then-conservative government had reportedly restricted government scientists from talking to the media or travelling to scientific conferences.

At the time, an astonishing 90 percent of government scientists surveyed felt like they were being muzzled.

Within weeks of taking power, Trudeau tried to put a stop to this. His Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development announced that government scientists would now be free to talk to the media and the public about their work without fear of retaliation from their managers. In December 2016, PIPSC managed to secure the guarantee in writing.

"Our chief science adviser, Dr. Mona Nemer, has been tasked to ensure… that federal scientists are aware of their new freedom to speak about their work," said Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan.

"We know that culture change takes time. But I am making every effort to meet with scientists and to encourage them to discuss their important work with each other and with Canadians."


Yet despite government efforts, the most recent survey found 20 percent of respondents have been prevented from speaking to the media or public since Trudeau took office - although it must be noted that this is down from 37 percent in 2013.

Still, because whistleblower protections remain quite weak, many scientists do not feel comfortable speaking out on the issue. And even though the government has promised to strengthen whistleblower protections, there is no indication when that will happen.

"Without strengthened whistleblowing laws, scientists will still have to choose between their careers and the public interest," Daviau said.

In an attempt to quell any future issues over scientific censorship, the Canadian government is now putting together a set of science integrity policies. These policies will be particular for each Cabinet department and will clarify the rules for what scientists can and cannot say about their work in public. If all goes well, the new rules should be in place by the end of the year.

"The report highlights how important the science integrity policies are, and how important it is to get them right," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of the scientific campaign group Evidence for Democracy, although she also warned that implementing these policies takes time and continued effort.

"Even with a political change at the top, it takes time to filter down. And it doesn't filter down on its own, it takes proactive action," she added.

The research was published in Science.