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Protesters, one dressed as a scientist (right), posed during a 2013 demonstration against the muzzling of Canadian government employees in Ottawa. Federal government scientists described restrictions on their speech in a survey that year and another released today.

REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Half of Canada’s government scientists still feel muzzled

More than half of government scientists in Canada—53%—do not feel they can speak freely to the media about their work, even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government eased restrictions on what they can say publicly, according to a survey released today by a union that represents more than 16,000 federal scientists.

That union—the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) based in Ottawa—conducted the survey last summer, a little more than a year and a half into the Trudeau government. It followed up on a similar survey the union released in 2013 at the height of the controversy over the then-Conservative government’s reported muzzling of scientists by preventing media interviews and curtailing travel to scientific conferences. The new survey found the situation much improved—in 2013, 90% of scientists felt unable to speak about their work. But the union says more work needs to be done. “The work needs to be done at the department level,” where civil servants may have been slow to implement political directives, PIPSC President Debi Daviau said. ”We need a culture change that promotes what we have heard from ministers.”

Trudeau campaigned on a promise to let scientists speak, and his government acted quickly to reverse restrictions from when Stephen Harper was prime minister. Within weeks of taking power, Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains announced that government scientists were free to talk with the media and public about their work and without approval from managers. In December 2016, PIPSC secured a clause in a new contract guaranteeing that right.

But advocates for greater openness say the progress has been slow. The survey found that despite the new government’s policy, 20% of respondents have been prevented from answering a question from the media or public since Trudeau took office, down from 37% in 2013.

Almost 90% of respondents said that whistleblower protections need to be strengthened. The union is still waiting for the government to do so, almost a year after a parliamentary committee called for stronger protections. “Without strengthened whistleblowing laws, scientists will still have to choose between their careers and the public interest,” Daviau said.

The government is taking steps on another front, by developing science integrity policies for each Cabinet department that will clarify the rules on how and when government scientists can speak about their work. The policies are expected to be in place by the end of the year. “The report highlights how important the science integrity policies are, and how important it is to get them right,” said Katie Gibbs, executive director of the Ottawa-based scientific campaign group Evidence for Democracy, which has advocated for these policies.

Gibbs added that after a decade of restrictive policies, it will take time for the culture in public agencies to change. “Even with a political change at the top, it takes time to filter down,” she said. “And it doesn't filter down on its own, it takes proactive action.”

Responding to the survey findings, Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan reiterated the government’s commitment to allowing scientists to speak freely. “Our chief science adviser, Dr. Mona Nemer, has been tasked to ensure … that federal scientists are aware of their new freedom to speak about their work,” Duncan said. “We know that culture change takes time. But I am making every effort to meet with scientists and to encourage them to discuss their important work with each other and with Canadians.”