The Conservative government, much criticized for its “muzzling” of federal scientists are out of power much to the approval of some scientists.
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“I heard from a number of [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] colleagues, and they commented that there was dancing in the streets and lighting candles,” said former DFO scientist Steve Campana. “I celebrated with them by proxy.”
Campana spoke to Global News from his new home in Iceland where he’s been teaching for several months. For Campana, it was the very muzzling that drove him to leave his position as a shark researcher for the Canadian Shark Research Lab. For years, he did public outreach, interviews, spreading news about advances in understanding sharks. But when the Conservative government came in his interviews went down by 90 per cent with no reason given. He said he followed proper procedures, filling out the necessary paperwork. It made no difference. Close to retirement, he decided to find work elsewhere.
WATCH: Former DFO scientist, Steve Campana, explains why researchers feel the government is ‘muzzling’ them
“I personally feel that communicating science to the public is an important job,” he said. But being unable to do that was frustrating.
It seems that he wasn’t alone. In November 2014, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union representing federal scientists, vociferously launched a campaign against the Harper government’s efforts to control the information disseminated to the public.
A survey the union conducted revealed that 90 per cent of federal scientists felt they weren’t allowed to speak freely to the media. PIPSC declared that they would be more politically active ahead of the election. And they followed through: In May protests were held across the country calling for more freedom of speech for scientists.
Now, with the Liberals —; who have vowed to take the muzzles off scientists —; in power, there is hope.
“It’s not going to immediately free up constraints of talking to the public,” said Ken Denham, a professor at the University of Victoria who was a former scientist with the DFO.
“I think things will change, but it won’t be overnight.”
Denham’s experience was similar to stories from federal scientists: not free to openly communicate with media, even restrictions on accessing other scientific data over the Internet.
For Campana, he was even reprimanded for attending a shark conference in South Africa on his own dime and time. The reason? Because other delegates would know he worked for the DFO.
The path ahead
Both scientists believe that the move forward will be a gradual one.
“I believe there is going to be lingering fear and paranoia by federal scientists until they’ve given a clear directive about what they can do,” said Campana. “They’re going to need some very clear assurances.”
Denham worries that the culture of fear will continue to exist at the managerial level within departments. For years there has been the concern that a minister would look unintelligent, uniformed or simply just plain bad. Management was there to protect ministers’ images under the shadow of Harper. It will take a long time, he thinks, to lose that fear.
WATCH: Union wants assurances government scientists won’t face interference
“I think it’s going to be a big hurdle to get over. That culture of fear is there within management,” he said.
“People are afraid. It’s like being repeatedly burned, and you’re afraid.”
Neither scientist believes that federal scientists should be given free reign.
Denham turns to the U.S. for an example of how the federal government could move forward.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has an administrative order called Scientific Integrity. In section 4, it specifically addresses scientists’ communication of scientific ideas. Specifically, it refers to “transparency, traceability, and integrity,” even going so far as to say that government scientists are free to express their own opinions on government policies, so long as it’s made clear that they are their own.
But the unmuzzling of scientists is just one of the pressing issues in the scientific sector. According to PIPSC, under Harper’s government, $2.6 billion and more than 5,000 jobs were targeted to be cut between 2013 and 2016 in the science sector.
Trying to increase funding will be another hurdle.
“Unmuzzling scientists can be done with a stroke of a pen, but releasing funding, well that’s money,” Campana said.
Though the move to more openly communicative federal departments will undoubtedly take time, at least it’s a move in the right direction.
“I’m really hoping things will open up,” said Denham. We’ve got all these intellectual people in a lab with a door that’s semi-locked.”