Foreign scientists call on Stephen Harper to restore science funding, freedom

Hundreds of scientists around the world are asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to end "burdensome restrictions on scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists."

Open letter warns about effects of Canadian science policy on international collaboration

U.S. Goast Guard cutter Healy breaks ice ahead of the Canadian Coast Guard ship Louis S. St-Laurent in the Arctic Ocean. Scientists say international collaboration is an important part of their work, but is being hampered by Canadian government policies. (Petty Officer Patrick Kelley, U.S Coast Guard/Associated Press)

Hundreds of scientists around the world are asking Prime Minister Stephen Harper to end "burdensome restrictions on scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists."

The call was made in an open letter drafted by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that represents U.S. scientists and uses science to advocate for environmental sustainability.

The letter was signed by more than 800 scientists outside Canada from 32 countries, at institutions ranging from Harvard Medical School in the U.S. to the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

The letter says "a rapid decline in freedoms and funding" for Canadian government scientists is making it more difficult for them to conduct research, communicate scientific information and expertise and collaborate internationally.

"Canada's leadership in basic research, environmental, health and other public science is in jeopardy," the letter says. "We urge you to restore government science funding and the freedom and opportunities to communicate these findings internationally."

The signed letter is being promoted in Canadian newspaper and online ads paid for by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 60,000 public servants across Canada, including more than 15,000 federal government scientists. The ad campaign is being launched during the government of Canada’s Science and Technology week.

In a statement responding to the letter, Scott French, a spokesman for Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology, said the government has made "record investments in science, technology and innovation." He also said Canada is No. 1 among G7 countries for its support of research and development at its colleges, universities "and other research institutes." However, he did not mention research conducted by federal government departments.

According to PIPSC, $2.6 billion in cuts have been budgeted for the 10 top science-based federal government ministries and departments between 2013 and 2016.

With regard to the freedom of federal scientists to communicate, French said, "While ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments; scientists have, and are readily available to share their research with Canadians," he said. He added that federal departments and agencies produce over 4,000 science publications per year, including 700 peer-reviewed articles last year alone.

Michael Halpern, manager of strategy of innovation for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the letter is meant to show how concerned the world is about the effect that Canadian government restrictions on its own scientists have on international scientific collaboration. In some cases, he said, U.S. researchers are reluctant to collaborate with Canadian government scientists because of partnership agreements drafted by the Canadian government that restrict their ability to publish their data.

In other cases, cuts to the collection of Canadian air pollution and climate monitoring data are affecting scientists' ability to get a complete picture of what's happening, Halpern said.

'Loss for the international science community'

His group is also concerned about reports of restrictions on Canadian government scientists' ability to travel to conferences to share their results.

"I think it's a loss for the international science community," he said. "Science thrives in an environment that is open and free and where researchers can collaborate across borders. Canadian government scientists have made many critical contributions to our understanding of environmental and public health challenges, and we need the best and the brightest throughout the world to be able to work together."

Halpern said his group shared its letter with the PIPSC, as in the past, it has faced similar problems in the U.S. to what Canadian government scientists are facing. It has been advising PIPSC on solutions that might lead to positive changes in scientific policy-making in Canada.

PIPSC is publicizing the letter in Canadian ads because "we thought it was important to draw attention to what the world thinks – what the science world thinks," said Peter Bleyer, a policy adviser for the union.

He added that Canadian federal government scientists can't speak freely themselves, so it is turning to their international collaborators to raise their voices.

"There's so much evidence pointing to how government science has been undermined and how Canadian government scientists has been muzzled," Bleyer said. " What is more important now is what's the impact of that? What's the impact in terms of our reputation around the world…and what's the impact on Canadians in their day to day life?... We really hope that this appeal to what the world thinks of Canada is something that will strike a chord."