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Majority of government scientists in Canada still feel unable to speak freely to media

Number has dropped from 90% under Harper to 53% under Trudeau government, survey says

by Sharon Oosthoek, special to C&EN
February 26, 2018

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Credit: Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock.com
Scientists and activists hit Canadian streets beginning in 2012 to rally against what they claimed was a government attack on science under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Credit: Paul McKinnon/Shutterstock.com
Scientists and activists hit Canadian streets beginning in 2012 to rally against what they claimed was a government attack on science under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

More than half of Canadian government scientists who responded to a survey last year say they still cannot speak freely to the media about their work, despite efforts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to unmuzzle federal researchers.

The topic was a major political issue in the 2015 federal election, after several reports showed that the government under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper prevented federal scientists from speaking publicly and restricted some from presenting their research at conferences.

The survey, published on Feb. 20, found 53% of respondents answered no to the statement, “I am allowed to speak freely and without constraints to the media about work I do at my Department/Agency.” When the same question was put to government scientists under the Harper government in 2013, 90% answered no.

“Things were slow to get flowing. Yes, the government changed its communications policy, but nobody seemed to know about it,” says Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which commissioned the survey. The PIPSC is a union representing federal scientists.

The online survey targeted more than 16,000 union members from May 29 to June 27, 2017, and just over 3,000 (18.5%) participated.

The survey also asked union members about political interference and its impacts on policy. Nearly half—47%—said they knew of cases since the election where the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability had been compromised because of political interference with scientific work. That compares to 71% who said the same thing in 2013.

After the election, the new minister of innovation, science, and economic development, Navdeep Bains, declared in November 2015 that federal government scientists are free to speak to the media about their work. The government said policies and procedures would be revised to reflect this change.

“We know that culture change takes time,” Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said in a statement. “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.”

Katie Gibbs, president of research advocacy group Evidence 4 Democracy, says that although science communication has improved, the survey shows there is more work to be done.

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