Government scientists push for right to speak freely about research

WATCH: After years of saying they’ve been muzzled by the Harper government, the union representing scientists and researcher are asking for scientific integrity to be enshrined in their collective agreement. Vassy Kapelos explains.

Scientists working for government agencies have accused the federal government of muzzling them on issues like climate change. But, the union representing those researchers is poised to take the unusual step of demanding Ottawa enshrine scientific independence in their collective agreement.

A survey by their union, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, found nine out of 10 government scientists feel they aren’t allowed to speak freely about the work they do.

The union, which represents 15,000 government scientists, is proposing revisions to the collective agreement, saying scientists have a right to talk about their work, to media and at conferences, as long as they make it clear “that they are speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of the Government of Canada.”

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“Our members, more than anyone, acknowledge that there are issues and area where there should be limitations. But other countries, like the U.S., have established policies to distinguish between when you’re talking on behalf of the government and when you’re talking for yourself and they do just fine,” union advisor Peter Bleyer told Global News, ahead of announcing a public campaign on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Government scientists feel muzzled, according to union survey

He said it’s the first such move that he’s aware of to have scientific independence included in the collective agreement.

“Our members have decided to take matters into their own hands,” Bleyer said.

Tensions started to boil years ago, when the Conservatives changed media relations policy for scientists at some departments, such as Environment Canada.

Instead of talking directly to reporters, scientists said they were told to go through a communications department.

READ MORE: Feds boost communications staff amid complaints of tighter control

The federal government doesn’t see itself as silencing anyone.

“While ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments, government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public,” government spokesperson Heather Domereckyj told Global News in an email.

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She went on to say Canada is the top country among G-7 nations “for our support for scientific research and development in our colleges, universities and other research institutes.”

Domereckyj said the government’s goal during negotiations is “to reach a fair and reasonable settlement” with the scientists and their union.

While this is just one issue of many the two sides have to work out, scientists and the union want this one put in writing.

With files from Vassy Kapelos

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