Some Government Scientists Feel Muzzled

Public service unions want the right for their members to speak out on matters pertaining to science and their own research as long as they make it clear “that they are speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

It is hard to imagine that working very well. Suppose a Human Resources manager for Bell Canada disagrees with their policies on recruitment or promotion. It would not be acceptable for that executive to communicate to media a differing point of view, no matter how strenuously she asserted that the views were hers only and not the company’s.

Or suppose one of the many PhD economists at the Bank of Canada disagrees (or agrees) with the most recent decision on interest rates. That person should not be talking to the media about the topic unless asked to do so by the Bank’s communications staff. The Bank’s success depends on a tightly managed discipline around its carefully nuanced messages.

Universities are at the opposite end of this spectrum. Researchers there are free to say whatever they want about their work. Researchers within the same university can and do disagree with each other. Often these disagreements reflect differing political perspectives. The key distinction is that the university as a whole almost never takes a stand on a particular academic debate.

Government is different. Policy choices that are informed by the work of government scientists can be difficult to communicate clearly. They often involve compromises that can be deeply dissatisfying to the scientists who did the research. But it is not acceptable for those scientists to give voice to that dissatisfaction nor, acting independently, to highlight portions of their research that would point in another direction.

Peter Bleyer, a spokesman for the union, said: “Our science members said to us: What’s more important than anything else is our ability to do our jobs as professionals.” That sounds like code for something close to the academic freedom enjoyed by their colleagues in universities. The union wants government scientists to have the right to publicly disagree with government policy.

For media, it is a festive day when they get stories along the lines of “government insiders disagree with policy just announced.” For government, it is a complex communications job more difficult.

It is not a question of suppressing all dissent. Articulating disagreement is what opposition parties, universities, think tanks, editorialists, and activist citizens are for.

It is highly unlikely that any government would agree to the union proposals. With the control-obsessed federal Conservatives it would be unthinkable.

That obsession is what has animated the topic. It is often helpful to the explanation of policy choices to make available scientists who can explain the technicalities behind the research findings or policy proposals.

The Conservatives were pleased this week to let federal fisheries scientist John Tremblay tell us about record lobster catches last year on Nova Scotia’s south shore. But, there is a good chance that scientists will not be made available for news on more controversial topics such as oil sands development or climate change. The rather heavy-handed oversight on the whole communications process can make the most routine media requests for information an ordeal.

The dissatisfied scientists are just as concerned about budget cuts that have diminished their numbers and reduced the money available for research. In order to remain up-to-date within their profession, scientists need to visit with others in the same field, participate in conferences, and collaborate with counterparts in other institutions. All of this has become more difficult.

The limitations on government scientists’ ability to communicate can have regrettable consequences for universities. For example Dalhousie, and through it Halifax, is growing its global presence in ocean sciences. Dal’s researchers often collaborate on projects with federal scientists at agencies such as the Bedford Institute of Oceanography (BIO).

For a university, it would be unacceptable to have government interference in what is being studied, or what is reported when the research findings are published. But a Dal researcher may feel constrained in responding to questions on her paper to which a BIO colleague contributed.

It is understandable that many government scientists are upset with their workplace environment, but the union’s contract proposals are a serious overreach and are very unlikely to be accepted. At the same time, the federal government could show a lighter touch when implementing its control on communications.


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