Out of the labs and onto the campaign trail


Federal scientists are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. That’s why they recently formed a committee to, you know, “take a decision” as to whether they should become, um, more “politically active” in the run up to the next general election.

Yes sir, that’ll show Stephan Harper and his crude bunch of beach bums who like to kick sand into the faces scrawny of nerds clutching slide rules.

Under the circumstances, then, it is perhaps appropriate that the acronym for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing 15,000 government researchers who now find that their activist bones are aching is PIPSC, which one might waggishly contort into “pipsqueak”.

Still, as the Hill Times reports this week, the “move” to become formally agitated is “an unprecedented step from the union, breaking from its non-partisan position, to run and ‘evidence-based campaigned aimed at informing voters of the current government’s record. ‘Our members who are scientists and certainly feeling the brunt of the policies and cuts that have led us to take this exceptional position,’ said Peter Bleyer, a special adviser to PIPSC president Debi Daviau, speaking on her behalf.”

Others with less tentative natures might more properly ask Ottawa’s eggheads: What took you so long?

For years, the Harper government has treated publicly funded science as its own private think tank. It has systematically prevented researchers on its payroll from discussing their work with peers and colleagues elsewhere in the country and world and routinely run interference with the media.

More than a year ago, PIPSC released its own evidence: “A major survey of federal government scientists. . .has found that 90 per cent feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86 per cent) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.

“In particular, the survey also found that nearly one-quarter (24 per cent) of respondents had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons and that over one-third (37 per cent) had been prevented in the past five years from responding to questions from the public and media.

Finally, “the survey found that nearly three out of every four federal scientists (74 per cent) believe the sharing of scientific findings has become too restricted in the past five years and that nearly the same number (71 per cent) believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence. According to the survey, nearly half (48 per cent) are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials.”

This is, of course, standard operating procedure for any class of leaders whose need to control the message exceeds its willingness to accept the facts, however inconvenient these may be.

Still, if this nonsense is occurring, the odds are it’s happening not just once and a while, but daily. If that’s true, why hasn’t PIPSC been more regularly and reliably vocal about the problem, until now? After all, public attitudes in Canada towards scientists and science, in general, are warm compared with those in certain parts of the UnIted States and Europe.

According a Council of Canadian Academies’ study, published earlier this year, “Approximately three-quarters of Canadians agree with statements such as ‘all things considered, the world is better off because of science and technology’ and ‘science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.’”

The research also found that on “an index based on standard survey questions assessing beliefs about the promise of science and technology, Canada ranks 9th out of

17 industrialized countries. . .On an index based on standard questions assessing public reservations about science, Canada ranks 1st among the same 17 countries, indicating low levels of concern about any potentially disruptive impacts of science and technology. Public reservations about science in Canada have also declined on average since 1989.”

Given such evidently widespread support for science in the vast lay segment of the Canadian population, perhaps it’s time PIPSC considers changing its name to more accurately reflect a new, less hesitant brand statement – something like “fighting injuries to evidence, research, common sense, and enquiry.”

Call it FIERCE.

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