Many federal scientists say they fear they would be punished by the Conservative government if they exposed a decision made by their department that could harm the public.
Large numbers also told Environics Research last June that they are aware of actual cases in which political interference with their scientific work has compromised the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability. And nearly half of those who took part in the survey said they knew of cases in which the government suppressed scientific information.
In addition, the poll results suggest that 24 per cent of government scientists have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in federal documents. Liberal science critic Ted Hsu, who is also a physicist, said any political interference in scientific papers would be alarming.
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 55,000 professional civil servants, engaged Environics to survey 15,398 government scientists in 40 departments and agencies. The results released on Monday suggest a broad consensus among the scientists that they are being muzzled to the detriment of the public.
“According to the survey, 90 per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work to the media,” Gary Corbett, the president of PIPSC, told a news conference. “But it is even more troubling that, faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many scientists – 86 per cent – do not believe they could share their concerns with the media or public without censure or retaliation.”
About 26 per cent of the government’s scientists – 4,069 of them – took part in the poll. Derek Leebosh, the vice-president of public affairs for Environics, said that is a “robust” response compared to other surveys of this nature. The results are expected to reflect the opinions of all federal scientists accurately within 1.6 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
When asked about the survey, Greg Rickford, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an e-mail that the government has made record investments in science. “As such, Canada is ranked number one in the G7 for our support for research and development in our colleges, universities and other institutes,” Mr. Rickford wrote. But he did not address the allegations that scientists are being muzzled.
A government source pointed out that in 2012, Environment Canada scientists conducted 1,300 interviews, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources published nearly 500. “Those are concrete facts of Canadian scientists sharing their information with the public,” the source said.
But Environment Canada conducts many interviews about the weather. And reporters’ requests to talk to scientists about other topics are often refused. While federal scientists have occasionally chafed at the restrictions governments have placed upon them in speaking to the media, they say they were relatively free to conduct interviews until the Conservatives changed the communications policy in 2007.
The poll also suggests that 60 per cent of the scientists at Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans believe the government is not incorporating the best climate-change science into its policies.