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Most scientists who work for the Canadian government are not adequately protected from political interference or assured of being able to speak freely and openly about their work, a detailed assessment of federal media policies has revealed. (Getty Images)
Most scientists who work for the Canadian government are not adequately protected from political interference or assured of being able to speak freely and openly about their work, a detailed assessment of federal media policies has revealed. (Getty Images)

Scientists not shielded from political interference from feds: report Add to ...

Most scientists who work for the Canadian government are not adequately protected from political interference or assured of being able to speak freely and openly about their work, a detailed assessment of federal media policies has revealed.

The assessment, produced jointly by Simon Fraser University and the science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy, is the first systematic examination of the media policies of 16 federal departments and agencies that employ scientists.

The policies were scored in five categories, including whether they were accessible and current, promoted timely communication between federal scientists and the media, safeguarded against government message control of scientific information, explicitly allowed scientists to speak about their personal views and included protection for whistle-blowers. The results were then converted to letter grades, report card style.

Only the Department of National Defence received better than a C grade. Industry Canada, which oversees the federal government’s science and technology portfolio, and Natural Resources Canada, emerge at the bottom of the list. Both scored an F.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, said the wide variation should spur those departments that scored poorly to improve their policies and ensure public access to government science and scientists.

“We really want this report to be useful in trying to implement some change within government,” Dr. Gibbs said. “Realistically, a lot of that does take place at the department level.”

Dr. Gibbs added that the assessment looks at only the stated communication policies of various branches of the federal government with respect to science, not how closely they are reflected in practice. But policies that explicitly make clear that government scientists have the freedom to communicate with and respond to questions from the media are a necessary starting point for ensuring the government is not blocking access to scientific information that may be crucial to public policy, she said.

The new assessment gives more weight to complaints from journalists that the government’s communication policies inhibit public access to federal scientists, even when they are being asked about their own published research.

Policies that forbid scientists to speak to reporters without explicit preapproval or without a department spokesperson monitoring the conversation scored low in the assessment. Such practices have become common when reporters seek to interview federal researchers in Canada. In the United States, where past controversies over the political muzzling of government scientists produced a wave of new scientific integrity policies, the climate for researchers is generally more open, the assessment shows, although there is also a range.

“We find that when leaders inside the agency publicly commit to creating a culture of transparency, change comes more quickly,” said Michael Halpern, program manager of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Before the report’s release, Scott French, a spokesman for Ed Holder, Minister of State for Science and Technology, said federal researchers are available to share their research with Canadians.

“Environment Canada fielded nearly 2,500 media inquiries last year alone,” he said. “Additionally, Canadian federal departments and agencies produce over 4,000 science publications per year which push the boundaries of knowledge in areas important to the health, safety, and economic prosperity of Canadians.”

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