A recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist says the muzzling of federal government scientists is worse than anyone can imagine.

Steve Campana, known for his expertise on everything from great white sharks to porbeagles and Arctic trout, says the atmosphere working for the federal government is toxic.

The Halifax-based scientist, who only agreed to talk to CBC after he retired from the department, says federal scientists have been working in a climate of fear.

"I am concerned about the bigger policy issues that are essentially leading to a death spiral for government science," he said in an exclusive interview.

"I see that is going to be a huge problem in the coming years. We are at the point where the vast majority of our senior scientists are in the process of leaving now disgusted as I am with the way things have gone, and I don't think there is any way for it to be recovered."

Public-sector unions have organized rallies in a number of locations across the Ottawa area on Tuesday to protest the alleged muzzling of public scientists.

'It's hard to fathom. It seems to be simply a control issue.' — Steve Campana, retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist

"We have very strict directives of what we can say and the approval steps we have to go through, and very often that approval seems to be withheld for totally arbitrary reasons," Campana says.

He says government scientists often have to find their own funding, travel is often turned down and they are rarely allowed to talk to the media, even about their own groundbreaking research.

Control issue

His team discovered how to tell the age of lobster or shrimp — a finding that could help manage the fishery. But the research wasn't approved for release in Canada.

Scientists protest

A group of federal scientists say they face too many restrictions in releasing their findings. ( Tanya Birkbeck/CBC News )

"Meanwhile, one of my colleagues went down to the United States for a conference, presented the work and the media just converged on him. The results of that story were published in 127 media outlets in 25 different countries, and here we had taken the lead, putting DFO science in a good light, and nobody ever heard about it."

Campana says he doesn't think it's as simple as science conflicting with government policy.

"It's hard to fathom. It seems to be simply a control issue. You could sort of understand the rationale if you were potentially talking about a controversial subject and whoever is in government quite rightly has the right to make sure there are no critical statements about policy. But when you go to the extent of silencing just talking about facts, that just doesn't make any sense."

Despite Campana's comments, Treasury Board President Tony Clement on Tuesday dismissed the idea that federal scientists are being muzzled. 

"I know the unions like to get headlines and like to publicize their opening bargaining positions, but I'm quite confident that we are not doing the terrible things that they claim that we're doing," Clement said, responding to questions during an announcement about funding a federal Open Data Exchange in Waterloo, Ont.   

'Chilling effect'

Peter Bleyer, a special consultant with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, says there are more stories about disgruntled scientists.

"It has clearly gotten worse. There is very clear evidence of that. The problem is that it has created an atmosphere that affects not only those who are directly affected, but all of those who hear about it understand what is going on around them. That's what we call, very clearly, a chilling effect."

Campana says something needs to change soon.

"If we don't have the system in place to deal with it, there is going to be some problem that happens in the next few years. I don't know, rising tide levels or tsunami coming in or an invasion of great white sharks, where people are concerned about what's going to happen, and we won't have the qualified people in place to answer those questions at all.

"You can't have those people in place overnight. It takes years, almost decades, to develop that capacity."

Fisheries and Oceans Canada hasn't responded to CBC's request for an interview.

The minister of state for science and technology has said in the House of Commons that "ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments yet scientists have and are readily available to share their research with Canadians."