Sudbury

Integrity clause removes muzzle on scientists, says Laurentian University professor

Canadian scientists are relieved following news that a clause in their collective agreement with the Trudeau government was renewed, locking in their right to speak to the media about their research.

Integrity clause in agreement between feds and scientists comes after tight controls by Stephen Harper

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, Canada Research Chair, Environmental Micro-Biology, Laurentian University (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Canadian scientists could be breathing a sigh of relief following news that a clause in their collective agreement with the Trudeau government locks in their right to speak to the media.

The Liberals, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, agreed to renew the clause at the June 7 conclusion of bargaining for a contract that would replace the one that expired last fall for most of the three groups included — researchers, scientists and engineers.

Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde, a Canada Research Chair at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., says it's a "good day" for Canadian scientists.

Schulte-Hostedde cites two reasons why loosening the rules on scientists and how they communicate is good for Canadians, and the scientific community in general.

"One is the ability for research scientists with government to participate in the broader research enterprise, which includes communicating your work to your peers," he said.

"But most often government research scientists are also part of a global community of scientists —  both academics and government scientists— and they often participate in things like conferences where they present their research."

When that research is at odds with political goals or could be unpopular with the electorate, some politicians may feel the need to control the message, Schulte-Hostedde said.

"When we're dealing with issues like climate change, where some politicians seem to be quite reticent to accept the evidence that we are in the middle of a climate crisis, they don't like seeing their government scientists presenting on these issues," he said.

"The other issue is about media and the rights of research scientists in the federal government to speak out in the media about their research."

Schulte-Hostedde said he's never directly been muzzled by government officials, saying academic freedom is one of the standards of being a research professor at a university.

His work, however, did attract the attention of John Tory in 2006, when he was leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party. Tory called for an end to funding Schulte-Hostedde's "trivial" research into flying squirrels.

"I had received this money and [Tory] started calling it Flying Squirrel sex research, and so on,"  Schulte-Hostedde said. "I had to do a whole bunch of different media interviews to try to defend not just the fact that I got the money, but that these kinds of decisions about about funding are conducted by peer review, and politicians really have very little understanding of that system, and how it's meant to be independent of political considerations."

The tentative agreement reached this month is being presented to all union members for a ratification vote. Because three groups are being represented by the union, voting will take some time, between mid-July and mid-August.

Scientists across the country are breathing a sigh of relief. The Trudeau government has renewed an agreement with Canadian scientists that allows them the freedom to speak freely about their findings. Albrecht Schulte-Hostedde is a researcher at Laurentian University. He joined to explain what the agreement means. 8:25

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