Sunday, 27 October 2013

Union shines light on plight of scientific community


A recent poll suggests that the federal Conservative government approaches the scientific community with nearly as much disdain as it uses in its approach to organized labour.

Last June, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) commissioned a survey of 15,000 scientists across 40 departments and agencies.  The results are chilling, if unsurprising, with the survey suggesting a consensus exists among scientists that not only are they being muzzled by the government, they generally fear reprisals if they share their scientific findings with the public.

PIPSC represents roughly 60,000 scientists and professionals across the country, making it the largest union of its kind in Canada[1]. With the current political climate, PIPSC and its members have obvious concerns about not only their own well-being but also that of the country. Gary Corbett, president of PIPSC, notes that the survey found: “90% of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work to the media.”

For many of us who aren't especially well-versed in scientific jargon or who neither know nor care about the difference between a quark and a quasar it might not seem particularly damaging if scientists don’t speak to the media. But as Corbett explains, the silence being imposed on scientists is terribly detrimental and has the potential to harm people's health:

…faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many scientists – 86 percent – do not believe they could share their concerns with the media or public without censure or retaliation.

Censorship and scientific silence for fear of reprisals may also be tainting another element of our culture that is vital to the ongoing success of this country.   According to the Globe & Mail, the survey suggests 24% of government scientists have been asked “to exclude or alter technical information in federal documents” for non-scientific purposes.

This is disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that scientific and technical information compiled by scientists is meant to inform government policy decisions. For this reason, if for no other, scientific conclusions must remain objective and not be coloured by political desires. Mr. Corbett notes that if scientific work continues to be suppressed, altered or ignored, it may pose a risk to “public health, safety and the environment.”

Indeed, over half of scientists at Environment Canada and at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) believe the government is not using the best climate change science to inform its policy decisions. If these scientists are correct, the government could be putting the whole country at risk through its formulation of policy prescriptions in pursuit of interests that don’t have a scientifically sound foundation.

Many scientists who work for a government agency are fearful of repercussions if they speak out. Despite promises of anonymity, many scientists are still afraid of reprisals from the government, such that they won’t risk talking to the media or participating in surveys. With the current political climate so hostile to scientific information, it’s little wonder they choose to remain silent.[2]

With its survey, PIPSC is taking a step to break through this silence, proving once more that while it might be possible to intimidate an individual, intimidating a union into silence is quite another matter. The union is deftly walking a fine line: protecting is members who participated in the survey through the safeguarding of their anonymity while simultaneously getting the word out that the government is not treating the scientific community with appropriate regard. The union’s efforts may just go to protect the health of Canadians whose health might be threatened by this government’s disdain for the scientific community. PIPSC is to be applauded for its boldness and its continuing efforts to protect both its members and the public.