Standing up for Science and Academic Freedoms

Last week, I was honoured to speak at the Stand Up for Science rally in Kingston, as well as to debate the subject of freedom of speech for government scientists with my Parliamentary colleagues on Power and Politics. I am opposed to how the Conservative government applies its tight communications policy to scientists speaking about their research. I’ve been working on this issue since I was elected in 2011, and it’s great to see it getting more and more attention.  This week, even the New York Times criticized the Conservative government.

Science Rally 2


The Stand Up for Science rallies in defence of science and scientists, which have taken place clear across the country, were also a topic on CBC’s Ottawa Morning. During the show Greg Rickford, the Minister of State for Science and Technology, answered a few questions about muzzling scientists. One part of the interview was particularly troubling for me. Here is the question and Minister Rickford’s answer to the CBC:

CBC Ottawa Morning, Robyn Bresnahan:

How much are those publications censored by the Government? Before they come out, where the scientists presumably are presenting their research, but then somebody from the Government looks over this research, so it’s not like the scientists are publishing them directly…. Are they [scientists] getting your stamp of approval before they [publications] go out?

Minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford:

“Scientists work for government, and for universities, and for private institutions… Would you expect that anything that they did in terms of publications wouldn’t be guided in some way by some overarching policy of their respective employer? That would be true for universities, I would suspect.”

But this is not how universities approach science at all, and it is not how the government should approach science either. In Canada, universities are governed by a Statement on Academic Freedom, which guarantees the freedom to teach and conduct research, regardless of whether a research topic is unpopular and controversial. Academic freedom means that we have Canada’s best minds studying and reporting to the public on topics ranging from climate change, to alternate energy sources, to food regulation. These scholars can study these topics without fear of dismissal. Post-secondary institutions do not dictate how academic researchers determine their research interests, nor does it determine the methodology they use or their publication choices.

Government policy and our Minister of State for Science and Technology should allow the great talent we have working in our federal science labs serve the public interest to the fullest, and let those scientists speak freely about their research. This freedom to communicate will benefit scientific research by expanding its impact and relevance. Freedom to communicate will also help the Canadian public and policy-makers to make informed decisions about policies and government decisions based on this publicly funded research.

What I would like to emphasize today is that freedom to communicate is needed to support the integrity of scientific research.  With the kind of deliberate mis-information the public has received in the past about smoking tobacco or climate change, it is important for scientific communications to have integrity. Canadians must be able to trust federal scientific research, and know that the findings are credible and based on evidence. With freedom to communicate, the research results of scientists will be trusted because they will be able to speak to the public, unfiltered by the Government of the day and because they will be able to answer direct questions from the public. We can restore this integrity to our federal science programs, particularly the kinds of science involving basic research relevant to  government policy. Opening up these lines of communications and allowing our scientists to speak freely about their research is an important first step.

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