Breaking the silence: Government scientist speaks about culture of fear

A pile of unused placards sits upside down during a rally at Tunney's Pasture in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Warning: This post contains language that some readers may find offensive

TORONTO – What’s it like working as a federal scientist under the Conservative government?

For one scientist who agreed to speak with Global News on the condition of remaining confidential, it’s more than a challenge.

“I’m extremely frustrated,” he said. We’ll call him John Smith, in order to protect his identity.

READ MORE: What scientists being ‘muzzled’ looks like in the real world

The challenge, he said, is two-fold: for one, lack of freedom to speak freely with the media; and second, the inability to freely disseminate research to the public in a meaningful way.

“Basically, whenever there’s a call or a need to speak to the public or an opportunity to speak to the public, everything has to be approved at generally a fairly high level,” he said. “Particularly if it’s going to be a national story or it’s going to be something that would be of general interest.”

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Though local stories are generally approved, he said still has to go through a “hierarchy of approval.”

WATCH: Why are Canadian scientists rallying?

That includes dealing with the communications branch, then the information goes through various levels of management before being approved.

“There’s no situation where a reporter will call me out of hand and sort of say, ‘can we do a quick interview?’ It always has to be set up.”

“And the impression I get from the reporters is that if they bypass the official route to get approval to talk to a scientist, they will be blackballed.”

Following the publication of a Global News story  on Tuesday about the muzzling of Canadian scientists, Scott French, spokesperson for the Minister of State (Science and Technology) emailed Global News this statement:

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“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. For instance, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada fielded over 3000 media inquiries last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans fielded 834, Natural Resources Canada fielded over 470, and the National Research Council fielded almost 370. Overall, Canadian federal departments and agencies produce over 4,000 science publications per year. Canada, meanwhile, is ranked number one in the G-7 for our support for scientific research and development at our colleges, universities and other research institutes.”

“That’s bull—t,” said Smith.

“Yeah, they may have fielded x-number of media inquiries, but did they give answers that were meaningful?” he said. “Did they give answers that provided an objective perspective on what had been done and what had been found? These are aspects that are critical to make information useful.”

READ MORE: Government scientists push for right to speak freely about research

As for ministers being the primary spokesman, Smith said, “You show me a minister who’s got enough background to actually explain the complexity of some of the information we have to convey and I will jump off a bridge.”

Out of five ministers who likely have to deal with complicated scientific research, only one of them has a science background, and that’s in nursing.

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Minister of State (Science and Technology) Ed Holder’s profile on Industry Canada‘s website states that before being elected, he was President of Stevenson and Hunt Insurance Brokers Limited. There is no information on Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq‘s post-secondary education at all. Natural Resources minister Greg Rickford has degrees in common and civil law. He also received an MBA from Laval University and a Bachelor of Science in nursing from the University of Victoria as well as a diploma in nursing from Mohawk College. Before getting into politics, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Gail Shea, ran a family business. Health Minister Rona Ambrose has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Victoria and a Masters Degree in Political Science from the University of Alberta.

“They may be decision makers, but to say that they’re the primary spokesperson? They are not the primary spokesperson for science.”

Only once has Smith been called out for doing something that wasn’t “supporting the government.” As with former Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Steve Campana, it was something done on his own time and without government affiliation.

If there is any question about the real sense of fear of speaking out, you just have to ask him why he chose to remain anonymous.

“It’s really quite simple. The governing Conservative party consists of a bunch of vindictive bastards.”

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Smith said there is a real fear of consequences for speaking out about the government, even fear of being fired.

“If you talk to senior officials within the department or within management locally, they basically tell you that, keep your head low, don’t get into trouble, because there will be consequences, plain and simple.”

Smith has been working for the government for “decades.” He said that the real change to scientists’ freedom arose with the election of Stephen Harper.

WATCH: Union wants assurances government scientists won’t face interference

The medium is the message

Of real concern to Smith is how the public is left in the cold when it comes to research.

“I cannot issue a press release,” he said. “I cannot advertise it as ‘this is an outcome of what we’ve done’ in the department I work in.”

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Instead of the report or research being issued in a public-friendly press release or news story, it appears in technical documents accessible through government websites or is published in scientific journals.

“It makes science look remote and irrelevant. The science that we do does not necessarily affect every Canadian, but it affects some Canadians. And they should be able to have access to the information in the sort of language they can understand.”

Smith is skeptical that anything will change with the recent attention. And he worries that the issue is low on the public’s priority list. But for scientists, that’s not the case.

“I’ve spoken to very senior civil servants and not a single one of them has expressed a desire to have this party in power. They’ve had enough,” he said.

“It can’t be worse. Please,” he said. “It can’t be worse.”

After asking for a comment from Minister Holder on the comments made by Smith, French replied that there was nothing to add beyond the statement that was provided on Tuesday.

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