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Justin Trudeau chats with scientist Nadia Mykytczuk at the Vale Living with Lakes Centre in Sudbury, Ont., on Aug. 18, 2015.

Gino Donato

More than half of the federal scientists who responded to an online survey conducted last year say they still do not feel they can speak freely to the public and media about their work despite Trudeau government policies aimed at unmuzzling researchers.

The survey, released on Tuesday by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents the majority of scientists working in the federal government, also revealed that 23 per cent of respondents said they are aware of cases where public health and safety has been compromised because of political interference with scientific work since the last election.

The results show a marked improvement compared with an earlier version of the survey conducted in 2013, when the Harper government was facing sharp criticism for its restrictive communication policies. At that time, 90 per cent of scientists who were surveyed said they were not able to speak freely about their research. Soon after the election, both Justin Trudeau and various cabinet ministers overseeing science-related agencies pledged to reverse the restrictions and encourage open communication between federal scientists and the public.

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"The numbers do show that real progress has been made," union president Debi Daviau said. "But we're finding that across the board, it's taking some time for this culture shift to happen."

A total of 3,025 out of the 16,377 members who received the survey went online last year to answer a series of questions regarding science, muzzling and political interference, yielding a response rate of about 18.5 per cent. That's somewhat less than the 26 per cent of members who responded in 2013, Ms. Daviau said, but still enough to conclude that across the federal government there are roadblocks that stand between the public and scientists working in the public's interest. Based on the responses, those barriers include management, media relations and a deep-seated culture of silence that remains the norm in some corners of the bureaucracy.

"There is still a cadre of managers who were very comfortable with the tight rules under the Harper government and are clinging to them," one respondent wrote.

The survey also suggests that one area where federal scientists seem to feel there has been little change is in the lack of protection for whistle-blowers. Among those who responded, 89 per cent agreed the public would be better served if the federal government strengthened such protections, compared with 88 per cent who said so in 2013.

Katie Gibbs, president of the Canadian research advocacy group Evidence 4 Democracy, which protested muzzling during the Harper era, said the survey "clearly shows the problem is not resolved. There is still more work to be done."

Federal Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said the government remains committed to unmuzzling federal researchers.

"We know that culture change takes time. But I am making every effort to meet with scientists and to encourage them to discuss their important work with each other and with Canadians," she said in a statement.

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A key figure in that effort is newly appointed federal chief science adviser Mona Nemer, who said that while the survey leaves some open questions about what is behind the responses, the results imply that after more than two years, the signal from political leadership that scientists are free to speak with journalists and the public about their work has yet to penetrate across government.

"The departments have been asked to translate this into action and it's not been uniform," Dr. Nemer said.

Dr. Nemer, who was appointed last fall, months after the survey was already conducted, said she is currently reviewing communications policies across science-related federal departments and agencies. She added that ensuring openness in federal research is a key component of her mandate and part of a larger effort she is undertaking with the union and Treasury Board to develop scientific integrity policies for the federal government. Dr. Nemer said she is aiming to have those policies in place by the end of this year.

Ms. Daviau noted that the union has been negotiating the inclusion of anti-muzzling language and a commitment from management to scientific integrity in its collective agreements with government since 2016.

"Now that we've gained this ground, which we believe is world leading in terms of protecting scientific integrity, we're never going to give up this territory," she said.

The need to enshrine such policies with legally binding mechanisms is clear from events unfolding south of the border, Ms. Daviau added. Since Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, research advocacy groups have raised the alarm that scientific integrity policies put in place during the Obama administration are now being disregarded.

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