The new Liberal government has pledged to end an effective gag order on government scientists, who for years have faced major restrictions on speaking publicly about their research.
But documents prepared for Treasury Board President Scott Brison warn that when government policy and scientific pursuits don’t align, the scientists may exact their revenge.
“It is the legitimate role of politicians to set priorities. In setting priorities for government programs, science is but one factor,” read the documents, obtained under access to information laws. “While scientists may be disappointed when projects receive less funding or attention, it remains the role of ministers to determine priorities and defend them before the Canadian public.”
The documents were sent to Brison by Yaprak Baltacioglu, the top bureaucrat at Treasury Board. Brison is not the minister responsible for government science, but as the head of Treasury Board is responsible for the government’s overall communications policy.
The document notes that policy already “encourages public servants to communicate openly with the public,” a point that may come as a surprise to anyone who has attempted to speak to a public servant in the last decade.
More broadly, the documents warn, allowing public servants to be “openly critical” of government decisions would undermine the relationship between bureaucrats and their elected masters.
But Debbie Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said her members simply want the ability to speak publicly about their research.
“Appreciating that the government does not want to permit scientists just to have free rein to say whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want, work still needs to be done to establish what those boundaries actually are,” Daviau said in an interview Friday.
“Do our members feel passionate about the work that they do on behalf of Canadians? Absolutely . . . . Unfortunately, under the former government there was no mechanism for public servants who found themselves concerned about the direction of government to raise that through the right forum. So that’s why you saw a lot of people turning to the media and the public to plead their case.”
The institute has asked the Liberals to include their commitment to letting scientists speak in the union’s collective agreement.
In response to the Star’s questions, Brison’s office sent a statement indicating Canadians “deserve” to know how evidence informs their policy choices.
“If we want Canadians to trust their government, their government needs to trust them,” Brison’s statement read. “It also needs to trust public servants to do their job. As a government, we are fully committed to ensuring that government science informs our decisions and that this information is available to the public.”
The federal government and public scientists have clashed in the past, notably over the tenure of the previous Conservative government. Scientists’ complaints were well documented when Stephen Harper was prime minister — including allegations of “muzzling” or preventing scientists from speaking publicly about their research, a workplace “climate of fear,” and cuts to research funding.
More recently, Environment Canada employee Tony Turner was suspended from his job after recording an anti-Harper protest song.
“Where I got caught was in the value and ethics code . . . my research per se wasn’t muzzled, it was what they perceived to be violating the (code) by speaking out against the government,” Turner said in an interview Friday.
CLASHES BETWEEN THE GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC SCIENTISTS:
June 2010: The Conservative government quietly announces they intend to kill the mandatory long-form census, angering pretty much any group that relied on good demographic data, from business organizations to academics.
July 2012: Hundreds of scientists gather on Parliament Hill to protest the “death of evidence,” saying budget cuts have hurt their ability to conduct research on the environment, public health, and climate change.
October 2013: A full 90 per cent of respondents to a PIPSC poll say they can’t speak freely about their research, while 71 per cent say they believe their work has been “compromised” for political reasons. Another 24 per cent say they’ve been asked to modify or remove findings for non-scientific reasons.
February 2014: PIPSC releases a poll showing half of federal scientists believe budget cuts are jeopardizing their ability to do their job, and 91 per cent believe upcoming cuts will further erode that ability.
October 2014: The non-partisan Evidence for Democracy group gives federal departments a C- on their media policies restricting scientists ability to speak publicly.
November 2015: Journalists are shocked when a government scientist actually agrees to do an interview.
Author: Alex Boutilier