Federal scientists to be protected against muzzling, political interference

Federal departments need to have new "scientific integrity} policies to protect their scientists and researchers against political interference by the end of the year — something those scientists lobbied for after being "muzzled" under the previous Conservative government.

Departments, agencies must have scientific integrity policies in place by Dec. 31

Protesters dressed as an MP, a librarian and a scientist wear gags during a demonstration against the muzzling of federal scientists in 2013 under the previous Conservative government. The Justin Trudeau's Liberal government has released a model scientific integrity policy that protects scientists' right to speak. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Federal departments need to have "scientific integrity" policies to protect their scientists and researchers against muzzling and political interference by the end of this year.

All federal departments and agencies with 10 or more employees that do science- or research-related activities will have to have a scientific integrity policy by Dec. 31, 2018, based on a new model policy released by the federal Liberal government Monday.

"It's just another step in strengthening science- and evidence-based decision making," said Science Minister Kirsty Duncan, who noted it was the first time Canada has had such a policy.

"Why I think it's so very important to have this policy? It protects against political interference."

The policy was developed by Chief Science Adviser Mona Nemer, with the Professional Institute of the Public Service, a union representing 16,000 federal scientists.

The union had been calling for such a policy following widespread complaints of scientists being muzzled by the previous Conservative government under then-prime minister Stephen Harper. Canada's Information Commissioner recently confirmed that such complaints were "well-founded."

The new model policy includes principles that specify:

  • Federal government research, scientific products and associated communications are free from political, commercial, client or stakeholder interference.

  • Research and scientific information produced by the federal scientists is made available to the public in a timely matter, unless there are "clear and compelling" reasons for limiting disclosure.

  • Discussion based on differing interpretations of research and scientific evidence is a legitimate and necessary part of research and the scientific process, and should be encouraged and accurately represented.

  • The government should acknowledge scientists' contributions to government programs, policies regulations and decision-making by including their names and roles in official public communications and publications.

The guidelines also state that scientific activities by federal employees must be abide by standards of scientific excellence, research ethics and responsible research conduct.

Alleged breaches of the policy are to be investigated by a "scientific integrity lead" and resolved "in a fair and respectful manner," such as via mediation or dialogue.

Science Minister Kirsty Duncan said the reason she thinks the new policy is 'so very important' is that it protects against political interference. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Individual departments or agencies are free to adopt the model policy as is or adapt it to generate their own version. When asked if there were particular parts of the model policy that will be required in departmental versions, Duncan refused to respond directly, saying only that the departmental versions will be reviewed by the Treasury Board Secretariat, the chief science adviser and PIPSC. The government has not said when the policies would go into effect.

PIPSC negotiated protections against muzzling in its collective agreements in 2017. But a poll of members released this past February found that half of all respondents still feel muzzled.

In a statement, union president Debi Daviau said the union is "delighted" with the new announcement. She said the policy was proposed originally by union members and then amended through consultation over three years of work.

New science integrity guidelines were announced today and it looks like a positive step forward for scientists. We'll get a sense of what the guidelines mean and how they'll impact future policy. 6:37

But Matt Jeneroux, Conservative science critic, said the policy is not defined clearly enough and, as such, may not fulfil its intended purpose.

"The directive permits suppression of scientific research based on 'compelling' reasons," Jeneroux said.

"As such, the policy conveniently leaves the door open for suppressing research above and beyond the legitimate privacy and security concerns enshrined in those Acts."

Jeneroux also said he has problems with the department policing its own infringements of the policy.

"Oversight and enforcement of this policy would be better suited (to) an actor that is less directly involved in the alleged act of suppression itself," he said.

About the Author

Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.

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