Researchers feel federal ‘chill’

Is the government muzzling scientists? | Union says survey shows federal researchers feel unable to speak about findings

Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture Canada scientists are among the most visible examples of federal scientific employees unhappy with government communications control, says their union.

“A chill has settled over federal government science,” Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) president Gary Corbett told a Parliament Hill news conference.

“Science often is being frozen out of government decisions.”

The survey of more than 4,000 federal scientists also reported that more than half of CFIA scientists and veterinarians think the “dual mandate” of food inspection and food trade promotion “poses a risk to public health.”

PIPSC policy and communications director Peter Bleyer said it was one of the stronger responses from scientists who answered an Environics Research Group survey.

“There clearly is a lot of concern within CFIA about the dual mandate jeopardizing public health,” he said.

“This was one of our strongest responses.”

The CFIA did not respond to the union claims, but the federal government recently announced that responsibility for food safety issues now rests with Health Canada, which is the CFIA’s new departmental home. Export, plant and animal health issues and varietal registration will continue to be Agriculture Canada’s responsibility.

“We would say that is a step in the right direction,” said Bleyer.

The report also said that half of responding CFIA scientists and veterinarians gave senior management good marks for understanding food safety science issues, but cabinet ministers (in this case health and agriculture) were given a positive rating by only 23 percent.

The PIPSC report, called The Big Chill: Silencing Public Interest Science, was based on a survey of its 55,000 members.

Many reported that they were refused permission to speak to media about their findings or were forced to change their message.

“Muzzling of scientists is an action that affects us all,” Bleyer said.

PIPSC said it will release a report later this year on the impact of public service scientific cutbacks on public health and the impact of scientific results.

Agriculture Canada’s scientific downsizing in this year’s budget as well as cuts in CFIA funding will be a factor in the next report, he added.

Last week’s report said scientists at the fisheries and oceans department and Environment Canada were the most likely to complain about having their work or views censured.

However, there was also significant unhappiness among Agriculture Canada scientists and researchers. The department received one of the lowest scores on questions about how communications staff respond to media requests for information and how the results of their work are communicated to the public.

However, 73 percent of Agriculture Canada scientists who responded said they can share their results publicly. The survey said departmental scientific employees “appear to feel the most free to share their work with the public.”

PIPSC said the Agriculture Canada response is an anomaly in government.

“Canada’s scientists deal primarily in facts,” said the union report.

“They are not known for ill-considered opinions or rash judgments … so when a clear majority of federal scientists state that they are not permitted to speak freely, that the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted, that public policy has been compromised by political interference and that further protection for whistleblowers is needed, Canadians and government alike should listen.”

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