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

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 t
he 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

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