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Poll finds 90 per cent of Canadian scientists fear speaking freely to media

A new poll revealed today that 90 per cent of Canadian scientists feel they can't speak freely to the media about the work they do. Moreover, 86 per cent of those polled said they would expect censure or retaliation if they spoke out.

The poll was commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union representing scientists and professionals working for the government. It was carried out by Environics, based on an online survey of 15,398 PIPSC members carried out between June 5 and 11 this year. A news release issued today said 4,069 (26 per cent) responded.

The release also summarized the findings of the report:

The survey, the findings of which are included in a new report titled The Big Chill, is the first extensive effort to gauge the scale and impact of "muzzling" and political interference among federal scientists since the Harper government introduced communications policies requiring them to seek approval before being interviewed by journalists. Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is currently conducting her own investigation of the policies, which have been widely criticized for silencing scientists, suppressing information critical or contradictory of government policy, and delaying timely, vital information to the media and public.

In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24%) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37%) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.

In addition, the survey found that nearly three out of every four federal scientists (74%) believe the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted in the past five years and that nearly the same number (71%) believe political interference has compromised Canada's ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. According to the survey, 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, industry and/or other government officials.

"Federal scientists are facing a climate of fear," says PIPSC president Gary Corbett, "– a chill brought on by government policies that serve no one's interests, least of all those of the Canadian public. The safety of our food, air, water, of hundreds of consumer and industrial products, and our environment depends on the ability of federal scientists to provide complete, unbiased, timely and accurate information to Canadians. Current policies must change to ensure these objectives are met."

The survey bears out criticism reported in The Tyee as long ago as 2008, especially in field like environmental studies and research into the sockeye salmon conducted by Dr. Kristi Miller.

The full report, a condensed version, and the original Environics Report are all available on the PIPSC website.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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