Royal Society of Canada speaks out against government's muzzling of its scientists

Guest Contributor
January 21, 2013

Latest salvo against government policies

The Royal Society of Canada (RSC) has added its voice to the growing controversy over the government's muzzling of its scientists and alleged disregard for evidence-based decision making. The RSC issued French and English editorials which were published January 4th in the Globe and Mail and Le Devoir, asserting that "unreasonable limits are being placed on the ability of government-employed scientists to communicate their findings" and calling on the Harper administration to develop a policy that "clarifies the relationship between scientists, the advice they provide and the federal government".

"This should lay out the responsibility of the government to solicit and develop the best scientific advice possible in formulating public policy. It should underscore the government's commitment to advance scientific knowledge and not to hinder its dissemination," states the English editorial. "It should also demonstrate the government's commitment to use scientific advice in policy-making, recognizing the uncertainties that often come with it. It should ensure the independence of scientific advice from government control .... Such a policy will strengthen the role of science in public policy development."

Signed by RSC president Yolande Grisé, the editorials are virtually unprecedented in the organization's 131-year history and are the first initiative undertaken by a the RSC's recently Ad Hoc Committee on Intervention in Matters of Public Importance. The committee took on the issue at the behest of several RSC members and represents the RSC's efforts to expand its role further into the public sphere.

"The society has had a history of expert panels on controversial issues but this is the first time it has had a mechanism and a formal process to deal with issues outside its normal role," says Dr Pekka Sinervo, senior VP research at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and a member of the RSC ad hoc committee. "The key issue is not to decry what the government has done. We're trying to point in a direction forward that other countries have followed."

mounting opposition

Concern over the ability of government scientists to discuss their research has ebbed and flowed over the years before surging with the election of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. By restricting the freedom of scientists to discuss their work publicly and forcing virtually all communications with the media to flow through the Prime Minister's Office, opposition began to build and first gained widespread traction at last year's meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver.

"This relationship (between scientists and the federal government) is now at risk in Canada. Unreasonable limits are being placed on the ability of government-employed scientists to communicate their findings, whether through publication of their research results or attendance at scientific meetings. These restrictions seem particularly severe in topics related to the environment, where several government scientists have been denied the opportunity to discuss their work … Such restrictions fly in the face of the government's own cabinet policy of basing policy decisions on the best science available." — RSC Op-Ed

A session on the muzzling of government scientists attracted considerable national and international media attention and led to last July's Death of Evidence rally which saw more than 2,000 scientists and supporters march on Parliament Hill to push for greater freedom to speak and disseminate science-based decision making throughout government (R$, July 31/12).

Sinervo notes that Canada does not have a formal science policy arm like many advanced nations and describes department-level policies as "not constructive".

"They reflect a view of government scientists as purely employees but they also have professional responsibilities to speak the whole truth, not just the part that their employers would like to hear. There is a communications policy and that's where the constraints are placed … The science issue is a manifestation of a broader issue of how government manages communications," says Sinervo, who wrote an early draft of the editorial. "Government should take ownership for developing a new policy and the Royal Society would consider assisting if asked."

The RSC committee's role is to advise the society's president who can accept or decline to act on its recommendations. Sinervo says any further action on the issue of muzzling scientists will be determined upon further discussion. The committee meets every two months and has a scheduled meeting in the next few weeks.

One group that welcomes the RSC stand is the recently formed Evidence for Democracy (E4D), an organization whose mission is to "advocate for the transparent use of evidence in government decision making". E4D was founded by Dr Scott Findlay, an associate professor of biology at the Univ of Ottawa and a key organizer behind the Death of Evidence protest.

"I'm delighted to see the Royal Society come forward. It has traditionally been circumspect and that's appropriate so their op-ed speaks to the magnitude and scope of the problem," says Findlay.

Over the past several months, Findlay has been meeting with individuals and organizations across Canada seeking support for E4D. Its functions will be four-fold: evidence monitoring and evaluation; public outreach; providing secure environments for evidence communication; and, resources for evaluation.

"I'm coming to the conclusion that there is a need for some sort of institute to sustain some of E4D's functions," says Findlay. "We're now trying to identify which parts of the manifesto can involve existing institutions. I have no interest in creating a new institution unless it's warranted."

Findlay says he's noticed a modest improvement in how the government says it intends to use science when making key decisions, such as the prime minister's assertion that his government will use science when deciding on the future of the proposed Northern gateway pipeline.

"I'm 100% convinced we would never have heard the prime minister say this if the Death of Evidence rally and subsequent momentum had not happened," he says. "But the real crux of it is the evidence element. Is the government investing in the science and if they are, are they using the evidence of that science."


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