OTTAWA - A large survey of science professionals in the federal public service has found that almost 25 per cent of respondents say they have been directly asked to exclude or alter information for "non-scientific reasons."
Some 71 per cent of those surveyed said political interference is compromising policy development based on scientific evidence, and almost half of those who took part said they were aware of cases in which their department or agency suppressed information.
The study, entitled "The Big Chill," was commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and paints a disturbing picture of government scientists who feel they are being muzzled.
More than 4,000 federal scientists — out of more than 15,000 who were invited —responded to the union-commissioned, online survey handled by the polling firm Environics.
"A chill has settled on federal government science that is even greater than that suggested by the cases so far reported by the media," Gary Corbett, the president of PIPSC, said Monday.
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is already conducting a study of how communications policy changes under the Harper government have clamped down on the sharing of government science with the public.
Legault was spurred to investigate the issue by a lengthy report from the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch, which included a score of anecdotes from six different government departments or agencies.
The PIPSC survey, which was conducted June 5-19 and surveyed 4,069 of the union's 15,398 members, adds statistical heft to that anecdotal evidence.
The responses came from across more than 40 government departments and agencies and included 670 Environment Canada scientists, 651 from Health Canada, 427 Defence department employees, 343 from Fisheries and Oceans, 335 from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and almost 300 each from Agriculture Canada and Natural Resources Canada.
Greg Rickford, the Conservative minister of state for science and technology, said in an email that the Conservatives have made "record investments in science."
"Science can power commerce, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for all Canadians," said the junior minister's email.
Through his office, however, Rickford did not respond to questions about the issue at hand: the alleged muzzling of scientists and the suppression of science in policy development.
A government official, speaking on background, said Environment Canada scientists alone attended 300 conferences in 2011, published 600 articles and participated in some 1,200 interviews.
The exchange with Rickford's office may help to illustrate the vast chasm between the perspective of elected officials and public servants.
The Conservative government, it appears, believes communication needs are easily met with carefully scripted and vetted talking points, even if off topic. Federal scientists, on the other hand, may feel differently.
Fully 90 per cent of respondents, however, said they don't feel they're allowed to speak freely about their work in the media, and 86 per cent believe they would face retaliation if they went public with information about harm to public health, safety or the environment.
Corbett noted the 2006 Government of Canada communications policy states it must provide the public with "timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information" about its policies, services and programs.
"Whether by implicit policy or explicit action, there has been silencing and it continues," Corbett said.
But the survey was equally damning in its assessment of the government's use of scientific research.
Just 21 per cent of respondents said Environment Canada uses the best climate change evidence available to make policy, while only 29 per cent agreed Natural Resources Canada does so.
Over at Fisheries and Oceans, 86 per cent of respondents said they felt changes to the Fisheries Act will hamper Canada's ability to protect fish and their habitat.
Peter Bleyer of PIPSC said that when the 55,000-member union does broader membership surveys, they typically get a fraction of the response rate the science survey achieved.
Anecdotally, respondents said the muzzling of science has become worse or was never as bad before the Conservatives came to power. But that's really not the issue, said Bleyer.
"Whether or not this problem existed before, it is a problem," said Bleyer. "It's a potential threat to all Canadians. We need to fix it."
Treasury Board President Tony Clement's office did not respond to a request for comment.
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Cuts To Science In Canada
A selection of programs and research facilities being closed, downsized or in jeopardy due to federal funding cuts or policy changes made by the Conservative government.
Advanced Laser Light Source Project (Varennes, Quebec)
May be forced to close in 2014 if new funding isn't secured due to moratorium on the Major Resources Support Program (MRS) at Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). Several of the following MRS cuts are detailed in a <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">report by the office of NDP MP Kennedy Stewart</a>, opposition critic for science and technology.
Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (Bamfield, B.C.)
Losing a third of his research budget, worth about $500,000 a year. The money runs out April 1, 2014 due to MRS moratorium at NSERC.
Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen Research Cuts
Canada’s only icebreaker dedicated to research has received $2.8 million in total MRS funding. Moratorium on MRS will result in far less research and higher costs to charter; loss of four technicians out of six.
Experimental Lakes Area (Kenora District, Ontario)
The government announced the closure of the Experimental Lakes Area run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in northwestern Ontario. The cuts will save it about $2 million a year — although <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/19/experimental-lakes-area-tories-scientists_n_2910022.html" target="_blank">sources told The Canadian Press</a> the actual operating cost of the facility is about $600,000 annually, of which a third comes back in user fees. (The Ontario government, working with Ottawa, Manitoba and others,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/04/24/ontario-ela-open-for-year_n_3146662.html" target="_blank"> announced April 24 that it would help keep ELA open</a>). The facility, an outdoor laboratory consisting of 58 lakes, laboratories and living quarters, has been in operation since 1968 and is credited with helping solve North America’s acid rain problem in the 1970s and 1980s among other breakthroughs in areas of toxic contaminants, algae and flooding by reservoirs.
Canadian Neutron Beam Centre, Chalk River, Ont.
$1.27-million shortfall due MRS moratorium. Training for users and students will be scaled back significantly.
IsoTrace AMS facility (University of Ottawa, Ontario)
High precision measurement of radiocarbon and other trace radionuclides for geological dating and tracing in the earth and environmental sciences. Operation in jeopardy. The facility recently received $16 million in funding from the Ontario government and Canadian Foundation for Innovation to set up new geoscience labs at the University of Ottawa. It was counting on $125,000 per year from MRS to maintain operations. That funding was to increase with new facilities. "It is shameful that our main funding organization for the sciences has decided that it should withdraw from supporting solid empirical research through funding laboratories," a spokesperson said.
Kluane Lake Research Centre, Yukon
The Kluane Lake facility, one of Canada's oldest research facilities, lost $106,000 due to MRS cuts. The facility is run by the Arctic Institute of North America, a joint U.S.-Canada research operation that is administered by the University of Calgary along with the University of Alaska, <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/story/2012/07/10/f-kluane-glacier-research.html" target="_blank">CBC reports</a>.
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, Ottawa
Launched by the Liberal government under Jean Chrétien in 2000, the foundation awarded more than $100 million in grants for university-led research. In 2011, the federal government’s first omnibus budget bill killed the foundation. At the time, the government said it would replace some of the funds with $35 million to be distributed through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) over five years for all climate research activities.
Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (Nunavut)
Located on Ellesmere Island near Eureka, Nunavut, it is one of the most remote weather stations in the world and does key research on climate change, ozone and air quality. Closed after it lost $1.5 million in annual funding due to the closure of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences.
The Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis (University of Alberta, Edmonton)
MRS moratorium means the centre no longer has an open door policy for Canadian researchers or a special reduced NSERC rate for research conducted by Canadians in the labs. "The long-term prognosis for the geochronology labs is not good," a spokesperson said.
The National High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Centre (Edmonton, Alberta)
Program in jeopardy due to MRS moratorium, <a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart.ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report_0.pdf" target="_blank">according to the NDP</a>.
The National Ultrahigh-Field NMR Facility for Solids (University of Ottawa)
The facility will close without MRS funding, leaving $10 million in capital equipment idle, including the only Canadian-based 900 MHz Bruker Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer,<a href="http://kennedystewart.ndp.ca/sites/default/files/kennedystewart ndp.ca/field_attached_files/mrs_program_moratorium_impact_report 0.pdf" target="_blank"> according to the NDP</a>.
Office of the National Science Adviser
The office, created in 2004 by the Liberal government of Paul Martin and led by Arthur Carty, pictured, was intended to provide independent expert advice to the prime minister on matters of national policy related to science, ranging from nanotechnology, high energy particle physics and ocean technologies to climate change and the environment. The Harper government closed the office in 2008.
National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
Funding for the arm's length, independent advisory group was cut in the 2011 budget and the group wound down in 2012. Since 1988, it had been producing research on how business and government policies can work together for sustainable development — including the idea of introducing carbon taxes. The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/14/national-round table-on-the-environment-and-the-economy-funding_n_1516240.html" target="_blank">Tories confirmed they cut funding because of the group's focus on carbon taxes</a>.