Trudeau government has more to do to combat Harper-era muzzling of scientists: report

Prime Minster Justin Trudeau meets a robot while visiting with families at the TELUS World of Science, to highlight the Canada Child Benefit, in Edmonton on Saturday, May 20, 2017. THE. CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

While the Trudeau government has removed restrictions that prevented federal scientists from speaking to the media during the Harper-era, a new report suggests the impact of the government’s amendments is still being realized.

An inquiry conducted between February‎ 20th, 2013 up to 2017 by Canada’s former Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, concluded that while communications policies were relatively in line with Access to Information principles, they weren’t being applied consistently within the media relations groups of individual departments.

The inquiry was originally opened after the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre filed a complaint under the Access of Information Act against the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the Department of National Defence (DND), Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), and the National Research Council of Canada (NRc).

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“The report identifies that there is still more work to be done for the Trudeau government to go further than just un-muzzling [scientists], but to support open science communication,” said Katie Gibbs, head of science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy. She states that while things have improved, there is a ways to go before a complete culture change can take place.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015 promising to end the muzzling of scientists, and proceeded to make corresponding changes to Canadian government’s communications policy and  included it in collective agreements with the unions to further protect it.

Gibbs explained that while Trudeau agreed to legitimize the rights of scientists to speak freely about their research, these new policies were not always followed within federal departments across the board.

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“What the government did was say at the very top level, ‘Okay, you’re un-muzzled, you’re free to speak,’ but it was not ever unanimous within departments. In some areas, you have managers who are still very much the same managers in place [as] under the Harper government, who are adhering to these former rules.” Gibbs added.

Legault made several recommendations in the report  to improve transparency.

These include making the Chief Science Advisor independent from the executive; ensuring that government science is fully available to the public; requiring government institutions to collect data related to releasing scientific information to the public; amending the Access to Information Act to require heads of government institutions to make “public interest disclosure” of information that could affect public safety, health or environmental protection; and training public servants in their obligations when it comes to informing the public.

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Gibbs added that Evidence for Democracy is currently advocating for Science Integrity Policies, which would clarify the rules about speaking to the media and the public for all government scientists, removing any uncertainty about doing so.

“It doesn’t just work to change the rules at the top. You need to work to make sure it’s getting through all the bureaucracy,” said Gibbs.

Legault’s investigation concluded that the complaints brought against the Department of National Defence are not well-founded, while those brought against the other institutions are well-founded.

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