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Most Federal Scientists Feel They Can’t Speak Out, Even If Public Health and Safety at Risk, Says New Survey

A major survey of federal government scientists commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) has found that 90% feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.

The survey, the findings of which are included in a new report titled The Big Chill, is the first extensive effort to gauge the scale and impact of “muzzling” and political interference among federal scientists since the Harper government introduced communications policies requiring them to seek approval before being interviewed by journalists. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting her own investigation of the policies, which have been widely criticized for silencing scientists, suppressing information critical or contradictory of government policy, and delaying timely, vital information to the media and public.

In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37%) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.

In addition, the survey found that nearly three out of every four federal scientists (74%) believe the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted in the past five years and that nearly the same number (71%) believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. According to the survey, 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, industry and/or other government officials.

“Federal scientists are facing a climate of fear,” says PIPSC president Gary Corbett, “a chill brought on by government policies that serve no one’s interests, least of all those of the Canadian public. The safety of our food, air, water, of hundreds of consumer and industrial products, and our environment depends on the ability of federal scientists to provide complete, unbiased, timely and accurate information to Canadians. Current policies must change to ensure these objectives are met.”

“Documenting the problem is the essential first step toward solving it,” added Francesca Grifo, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in the United States where, under the Bush administration, federal scientists faced many similar problems. “You can’t hope to solve the issues until you fully understand them.”

Invitations to participate in the online survey, hosted by Environics Research, were sent to 15,398 PIPSC members – scientists, researchers and engineers – engaged in scientific work in over 40 federal departments and agencies. Of these, 4,069 (26%) responded between June 5 and 19, 2013. The survey is considered accurate + or – 1.6%, 19 times out of 20.

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