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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2013

Dissent: an academic’s obligation

By Wayne Peters
In 2008, the National Post reported that Environment Canada had “‘muzzled’ its scientists, ordering them to refer all media queries to Ottawa where communications officers will help them respond with ‘approved lines.’” At the time the department said the intent of the new policy was to speak with one consistent voice across the country.

Until then, Environment Canada had been one of the most open and accessible departments in the federal government. Its scientists had long been encouraged to freely discuss their work with the public and media. Today, we now see this was just the onset of what has become an unprecedented level of insolence displayed by the Harper government towards public science in this country.

Just about every aspect of our public science, research and knowledge frameworks have been politicized, providing government with the ability to avoid contradictions of its political ideology. This has emerged in various ways, including shifting funding away from basic research, defunding politically inconvenient science and research, stacking federal granting council governing boards with political appointees, directing public science to serve private profit, and promoting undue corporate influence in university and college research.

In any strong democracy, the foundation of public policymaking is well-informed public debate and decision making, advised, in part, by science-based evidence and know­ledge. The suppression or manipulation of science facts can lead to a crisis of democracy in which political ideology and power, not facts, guide public decision making. The Harper government’s distaste for public science is well known. Controlling the communication of knowledge by muzzling scientists or otherwise precluding its creation in the first place by eliminating key research programs seem to be common tactics for this government.

Any effort to reclaim democracy must demand full access to public information. Like CAUT and its Get Science Right campaign, Evidence for Democracy, through its national Stand up for Science initiative, upholds exactly this principle. It maintains that the “generation, collection, rigorous evaluation and open communication of science is essential for informed public debate and a functioning democracy.”

On Sept. 16, it orchestrated rallies in almost 20 cities around the country at which Canadian scientists and their supporters demanded that science be freed from political motivation and be allowed to serve the public interest and democracy. This coordinated event represented perhaps one of the few examples in Canada where the scientific community, including many of our academic colleagues, organized under a single unified voice to speak on a public policy matter.

The same group launched an online campaign called Science Uncensored earlier this year, undertaken to protest the censoring and suppressing of public science. Scientists and journalists nationwide have spoken out against the government’s management of public science and, in particular, the muzzling of federal scientists. Collectively, they wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in 2012 calling on his government to adopt policies similar to those implemented by the Obama administration in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. South of the border, scientists are free to speak with the media and to express opinions on public policy. Science Uncensored asks for “freedom of speech for federal scientists” because it would “make for better journalism, for a more informed public, (and) for a healthier democracy…”

If you are wondering whether or not the muzzling of federal scientists is real, then check out survey findings released last month by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, entitled “The Big Chill.” The survey of more than 4,000 federal scientists concludes that “many believe censoring and suppression of publicly-funded science is widespread.”

According to the survey, 90% of respondents feel they are restricted in speaking freely to the media about the work they do and that nearly the same number believe they would face censure or retaliation if they did so; nearly one-quarter (24%) indicate they were asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons; nearly half (48%) know of actual cases where the health and safety of Canadians or environmental sustainability has been compromised at the hands of political interference; and more than 70% believe Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence has been compromised. The results of this survey are disturbing and ought to underpin a public outcry that science be freed from any political agenda.

CAUT’s own contribution to this voice is its Get Science Right campaign that aims to shed light on the range of attacks on public science in Canada, including the muzzling of federal scientists and academic researchers who work with them. The campaign provides a venue for academics and the public to speak out in support of public science and research. One of the highlights of this cam­paign is the town hall series organized for various cities across Canada to bring together eminent academic researchers, journalists and the public in a conversation about what is happening to science and research in Canada.

Apart from the grave implications for public policymaking in Canada, the larger message is one that academics across the country should heed. All academics, not just scientists, have an obligation as public intellectuals protected by academic freedom to speak out on public policy issues even if — and perhaps especially if — it means they will be the voice of dissent. The Guardian newspaper’s Sept. 30 article, “For scientists in a democracy, to dissent is to be reasonable,” argues that government policies in Britain, Canada and Australia are “crushing academic dissent on behalf of bad science and corporate power” and that such dissent is a critical part of the role of all scientists and academics.

It is this fundamental responsibility of the academic job — inseparable from, and integral to, the duties of teaching and scholarly work — which challenges those, like the Harper government, whose political ideologies threaten the academy, post-secondary education and a robust civil society built on openness, a genuine respect for knowledge and a commitment to the broader public good.