Releasing scientific information to the public in a timely manner, encouraging discussion around different interpretations of research results, and protecting government labs from political interference – all are bedrock principles of scientific integrity that have now been enshrined in a new set of guidelines for federal departments.

The model policy, released on Monday, is intended to help departments satisfy new scientific integrity provisions that were included last year in a collective agreement with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents most of the scientists working in government labs. It was developed in three-party talks between the Treasury Board, public service representatives and the government’s chief science adviser, Mona Nemer.

“The agreement is that it will apply to all [federal] researchers and scientists whether or not they are members of the union,” Dr. Nemer said.

The document covers matters of transparency, the ethical conduct of research and freedom from political and other forms of interference, as well as mechanisms for dealing with breaches of scientific integrity. It also includes the right of scientists to speak openly about their research without the pre-approval of government minders – a contentious issue when Stephen Harper was prime minister and political staffers routinely stepped in to prevent or delay communication between scientists and journalists.

Dr. Nemer said an important feature of the document is a provision for continuing monitoring and evaluation of scientific integrity policies to make sure that they are functioning as intended. The document makes clear that it does not supersede existing public sector ethics rules or legislation.

Scientific integrity came to prominence as a political issue in Canada starting in 2011 after Mr. Harper was criticized for his government’s muzzling of researchers, shuttering federal labs and threatening the gathering and communication of data that might pose a barrier to his agenda. Hundreds of scientists marched on Parliament Hill in the summer of 2012 to protest the government’s actions.

A similar outcry during the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush led his successor, Barack Obama, to institute scientific integrity rules that so far remain in place under President Donald Trump.

Because of the rules, “political appointees know they’ll pay a price for engaging in censorship of science,” said Michael Halpern, a deputy director with the Union of Concerned Scientists who is based in Washington. The organization is tracking how the U.S. policies are faring under Mr. Trump and the extent to which government scientists there may be engaging in self-censorship to avoid confrontations with the administration.

Where Canada differs from the United States is in the recent inclusion of scientific integrity provisions in public service collective agreements, which provide some measure of oversight and protection.

An online survey of 3,025 Canadian federal scientists conducted by the union last year found that more than half of those who responded still felt they were not able to speak freely despite a Trudeau government directive that explicitly states they can do so.

Katie Gibbs, president of the science advocacy organization Evidence for Democracy, cautioned that the new template still leaves some loopholes whereby a determined government can exert pressure to sidetrack politically sensitive research. She added interference with scientists can cast a chill that lingers for years in the form of departmental practices and culture.

Kristi Miller, a molecular biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, echoed those concerns. Dr. Miller was at the centre of a prominent example of political interference under the Harper government when she was prevented from speaking with reporters about her work related to salmon declines in the Fraser River.

While Dr. Miller is now freer to speak to the media, she said current rules do not require her participation in departmental discussions where her work may have a bearing on regulatory policy. She said government scientists not only need to be able to conduct and communicate their work, but to be part of the conversation about how that work is interpreted, something the new guidelines seek to promote.

“Managers and policy makers can be very uncomfortable with the idea of a having a scientific debate. They want consensus among scientists at best or the most convenient interpretation at worst,” Dr. Miller said. “But having people looking at different ways of interpreting science is what allows science to move forward and evidence to become stronger.”

Science Reporter
The Globe and Mail, July 29, 2018