Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Silencing of Scientists

Over the past few years, news reports that several federal scientists were prevented from speaking to the media have gained public attention, including those of Scott Dalimore1 at Natural Resources Canada, Kristi Miller2 at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and David Tarasick3 at Environment Canada 
These are the opening words of a report by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada. The report is titled
THE BIG CHILL        Silencing Public Interest Science
 and in pdf form can be found HERE.

The report set out to gauge the actual scale of so-called muzzling and political interference on science conducted every day. Of special interest to this blog is the muzzling of science regarding the general state of the natural environment & innovation on which Canadians and the Canadian economy depend.

According to the survey, nine out of 10 federal scientists (90%) do not feel that they can speak freely to the media about the work they do. While this statistic alone is worrisome, the survey reveals a further, more troubling finding. Faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department. As one respondent commented: “The current government is re-creating federal departments to serve the interests of its industry and business supporters and subverting the science....Public servants with a conscience live in fear [of opening] their mouths to the media or the public ....” 
Nearly half of the scientists are aware of suppressed information:
Nearly half (48%) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, regulated industry, the media and/or government officials. 
Some other startling statistics from the report include:

  • 37% report that they were prevented from responding to questions from the public and media by public relations staff or management over the past five years;
  • 24% report being directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons;
  • 74% believe that the sharing of government science findings with the public has become too restricted over the past five years;
  • 71% believe Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence has been compromised by political interference;
  • 86% believe public would be better served by greater transparency.

It would be interesting to find out where other nations' scientists stand.