Editorial Letter by Debi Daviau - Fixing the Problems Facing Federal Science Can’t Wait

Across Canada and around the world today, people are marching for science. Under U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration, the dismissal and defunding of science – especially, but not limited to, climate and environmental science – has given new urgency to efforts to protect and promote science in the public interest. Growing restrictions on U.S. immigration are also leading many talented scientists to look elsewhere for opportunities, including in Canada.

It’s easy and comforting perhaps to think that similar problems encountered under the former Harper government in Canada have been resolved since the election of the Trudeau government in 2015. But while the Trudeau government has proven much more supportive of science than the former Harper government, serious systemic problems remain that endanger both the integrity and future of public science in Canada. They cannot wait to be resolved by a later generation or government.

According to a recent Environics survey of federal scientists commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, over half (53%) of respondents continue to say they cannot speak freely about science and their research. While that’s a marked improvement over the 90% who said the same thing in 2013, it’s hardly reassuring to think that fewer than half of federal scientists are free to tell Canadians what they do for a living – or what they know. The chill of the previous government lingers. Many blame the management culture created by nearly a decade of Harper government policies.

In a groundbreaking win for the public interest last year, our union collectively bargained the right of federal scientists to speak about science and their research. But rights are only as good as the efforts to promote and enforce them. The problem of too few scientists feeling able to speak out can only be solved by more aggressive efforts to educate both scientists and managers in their respective rights and obligations.

Then there is the issue of women and science. For a government that prides itself on its feminism, including appointing highly-accomplished women to the key roles of Minister of Science and Chief Science Advisor, it should come as a wake-up call that nearly half (42%) of women scientists in the federal government see gender bias as a barrier to their professional advancement. The problem, according to the same Environics survey, is particularly pronounced among women scientists under 30, who are twice as likely as older scientists to perceive favouritism towards men in the hiring process.

In addition, a separate, wider survey of federal public servants, undertaken in 2017 by the Joint Union-Management Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion in the Public Service, found 74% of respondents identified bias as a top barrier to diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

Science should be free of any perceived bias, and so should the hiring of scientists.

Not least among the issues that continue to threaten the integrity and future of Canadian science are the actual budgetary resources available to the scientists Canada employs. While this year’s federal budget included important reinvestments in the National Research Council and new money to spur innovation (mostly targeted at the private sector and universities), the legacy of the former Harper government’s cuts has meant departmental funding is not fully restored.  In fact, the same survey of federal government scientists found that 58% of respondents disagreed that their respective departments had sufficient resources to fulfill their mandates.  

Of all the concerns identified by federal scientists surveyed in 2013 and 2017, however, protection for whistleblowers remains the highest. In 2013, 88% of federal scientists surveyed said stronger laws protecting whistleblowers would better serve the public. In 2017, 89% said the same.

Transparency shouldn’t come at the cost of one’s career. In a country and a world where science is indispensable to overcoming ignorance and ideology, whistleblowing matters more than ever.

That’s as good a reason as any to march for science.

Debi Daviau is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents over 55,000 scientists and other professionals, most of them employed by the federal government.