Federal Scientists Don’t Feel They Can Speak Out, Even If Public Health and Safety at Risk
The results of the first extensive survey on the actual scale and impact of muzzling and political interference among federal government scientists are in, and they are even more damning of the Harper government – and more worrying for science and the public interest – than at first feared.
Between June 5 and 19, 2013, invitations to participate in an online survey on science and the federal public service (conducted by Environics) were sent to 15,398 federal scientists who are PIPSC members, of which 4,069 participated. The results of the survey, outlined in a report published today titled The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science, A Survey, are considered accurate + or - 1.6%, 19 times out of 20.
Nine out of 10 federal scientists (90%) do not feel that they can speak freely to the media about the work they do. While this statistic alone is worrisome, the survey reveals an even more troubling finding. Faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department.
Over one-third (37%) report they were prevented from responding to questions from the public and media by public relations staff or management over the past five years. Significantly, nearly one-quarter (24%) report being directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Seven out of 10 federal scientists (74%) believe the sharing of government science findings with the public has become too restricted over the past five years.
Half of federal scientists (50%) report being aware of actual cases in which the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability has been compromised because of political interference with their scientific work. Nearly half (48%) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, regulated industry, the media and/or government officials.
The Impact on Policy
Moreover, seven out of 10 federal scientists (71%) believe Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence has been compromised by political interference. In particular, 62% of Environment Canada and DFO scientists do not feel their departments incorporate the best climate change science into their policies. Eight out of 10 scientists in these departments (86% and 85% respectively) believe the public would be better served if transparency and accountability were increased.
Federal scientists believe strongly in open government, but they are not unreasonable in their expectations. While most (98%) believe science findings should be shared with the public, 61% believe they should be shared with some restrictions in some cases, and only 37% believe they should be shared without restrictions. Just 2% said they should only be shared with the public in special cases. Most (88%) believe whistleblower protections should be strengthened.