Let science and scientists speak for themselves

Posted on in Governance Delivery System

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion/Editorials
July 30, 2018.   Globe editorial:

The scientific method is about ascertaining truth or, failing that, getting as close to it as humanly possible. It’s not infallible, and experimental research often raises more questions than it answers. But the quest makes science an indispensable driver of societal progress.

So full credit is due to the federal government, its chief science adviser, Mona Nemer, and the unions representing public-sector scientists. They have collaborated on a model policy that enshrines the freedom of government scientists to speak publicly, and helps protect them from political interference.

Individual departments have until Dec. 31 to craft their own versions. Each will hew to several core principles, including: the timely release of findings; long-term monitoring of the policy’s effectiveness; and encouraging discussion over differing interpretations of results.

These are all objectively good things, the latter in particular. Fulsome, fearless debate is central to scientific advancement, but that’s not always possible in government. Science may be rooted in verifiable fact, but politics is the pursuit of sculpting and pruning of same. The two often find themselves at odds, which explains the need for an integrity shield. It may also account for the shortcomings in the new policy.

There are obvious loopholes. The model says individual department policies “may be posted” to publicly accessible government websites. The word “shall” would provide more comfort, as would clarity about the “legitimate and compelling reasons” that can be invoked to limit disclosure. The devil is in the details, and they must be available for public scrutiny.

The document could also go further in bolstering the involvement of scientists in policy and regulatory discussions. It’s a long-standing request from, among others, Fisheries department biologist Kristi Miller. She speaks with some authority – hers was one of the many voices muzzled under former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government.

Getting this right matters. There is enough evidence in Ottawa, in Washington, and even at Queen’s Park, where Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently fired the province’s chief scientist for transparently partisan reasons, to prove that the political threat to scientific integrity exists beyond a doubt.

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