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Canada's government scientists get antimuzzling clause in contract

Scientists working for the Canadian government have successfully negotiated a clause in their new contract that guarantees their right to speak to the public and the media about science and their research, without needing approval from their managers.

“Employees shall have the right to express themselves on science and their research, while respecting the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector … without being designated as an official media spokesperson,” the new clause states. The ethics code says that while federal employees may talk about their own work, they should not publicly criticize government policy.

“This agreement was extremely important in order to ensure that Canadians could trust public science and the decisions that governments make with that science,” says Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the Ottawa-based union representing about 15,000 federal scientists. “The Institute is proud to be able to be in a position to ensure that no government will be able to take this away from Canadians again.”

The union says the deal, announced on 12 December, is the first of its kind in the world. It also includes an agreement for the union and government departments to work together to develop broader science integrity policies and guidelines. It will include rules to protect government scientists from political interference in their work, and from having their findings manipulated to support a particular political position.

The union began pushing for the provision in 2014, in response to the restrictive communications policies of the previous Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The policies left many researchers feeling they had been muzzled, unable to speak about even the most uncontroversial aspects of their work. A report by the union in 2013 found that 86% of federal scientists felt that they could not publicly share concerns about government policies that could harm public health, safety, or the environment without facing retaliation from their department leaders.

The broader scientific community has welcomed the deal, says Kathleen Walsh, executive director of the scientific advocacy group Evidence for Democracy in Ottawa. “It's a signal of the change in science in Canada in the past year,” she says. Justin Trudeau's Liberal government, which came to power last year, has reversed many of the Harper government's communication policies, and stated that federal researchers are free to speak about their work.