Sunday, March 20, 2016

Is it "Science" without "Peer Review?" Federal Liberals told to be Wary of "Unmuzzled" Scientists

          By Henry Stewart

Senior Ottawa civil servants have warned the new Justin Trudeau government that "unmuzzled" scientists working in the Federal bureaucracy and on government research contracts should still be subject to tight controls and restrictions over their ability to freely distribute their findings and comment on issues of public policy.

"Above the fold." The upper half of the front page of the March 19th, 2016 Saturday Star where (traditionally)  the important news stories and photographs were placed. It's interesting to note the intentional juxtaposition of an "investigation" about local psychics (on the left, with photo) with an "exclusive" on the political dangers of "experts" and "scientists" speaking freely. The second article was on the right, which has also just got to raise eyebrows given the well known political slant of the publication. Graphic c/o Toronto Star.

As outlined in the March 19th, 2016 Toronto Star article, "Be wary of 'unmuzzled' scientists, Liberals told," documents prepared for Treasury Board president Scott Brison warned that, "when government policy and scientific pursuits don't align, the scientists may exact their revenge." Although not the federal minister responsible for science (that honour is currently held by Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, who is supported by Science Minister Kirsty Duncan), the treasury portfolio is responsible for the government's overall communication policy.

The article also quoted Debbie Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union which represents most government scientists, as stating that her members, "simply want the ability to speak publicly about their research."

As outlined on the PIPSC "Presidents New Year’s Message 2016," Daviau is also a strong advocate of "evidence-based public policy," which typically indicates a policy informed by rigorously established objective, and independently verifiable evidence.

It's also a valuable catchall set of criteria which scientists could use to disagree with any number of government policies. The specter of staff on the government payroll working against Liberal policies no doubt frightens the current government just as much as it frightened the previous one.

A September 2013 CBC News video focused around the protests against cuts to Canada's public science programs, which were announced in 2013 by the Stephen Harper government. Organizers also presented allegations that Canadian scientists were widely denied permission to promote their research, comment on their findings or even publish papers in peer reviewed journals without the approval of their supervisors. It will be interested to see if the protests resume now that it has been established that the current Liberal government is under the same pressures to restrict the free flow of information from publicly funded scientists. To see the rest of the video, please click here. Screenshot c/o You-Tube

But back in November, as outlined in the November 6th, 2015 Huffington Post article, "Liberals Unmuzzle Canadian Scientists, Promise They Can Now 'Speak Freely,'" then newly minted Minister Bains announced that he was fulfilling a Liberal party campaign promise to allow government scientists and experts to comment on their work to the media and the public.

At the time, the consensus was that the real test of the new policy would occur sometime in 2016, when some currently unknown Federal government employee attempted to talk about something which conflicted with Liberal government policy.

Welcome to 2016.

Of course, the real problem with the concept that evidence should be the one true criteria for the development of public policy has nothing to do with where you sit in the House of Commons. It has to do with who pays for the research and who gets to decide what to do with it.

Government scientists think that they're working for the Canadian people for a higher good while the politicians think the people elected them to administer, manage and guide the scientists.

Both consider themselves the appropriate guardians of the public trust. And eventually, the public will tell them which of their viewpoints is correct.

Henry Stewart is the pseudonym for a Toronto based aerospace writer. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with your position here. I would add that the argument quoted from the documents Brison presented is a non sequitur as well. It makes the statement, "when government policy and scientific pursuits don't align, the scientists may exact their revenge."

    First, this is a troubling statement in that it presents scientists as a group that "exacts revenge" when they disagree with a policy. That is, they become unscientific and instead become tribalistic, responding in an emotional way out of personal interest. That is both an insult to scientists and counter to the very nature of what it means to be a scientific. (This doesn't mean that no scientist would ever do that, but in principle those who live by rules of science have psychologically and philosophically set aside ties to emotional interests and biases.)

    Second, it implies that scientists are willing to forgo actual scientific rigor to present false material to achieve their goal of "revenge". If the scientists merely present valid scientific information in objection to policy, that is not exacting revenge, but presenting legitimate scientific evidence. The only way to "exact revenge" is to set aside valid science.

    Third, if a scientist does "exact revenge" by setting aside science or acting with bad faith, the correct response is not to muzzle or control them, but to present the valid scientific data plus any evidence the individual is acting in bad faith. Acting in bad faith is a certainly a reason to dismiss a scientist from their job as well, so there are existing means of muzzling such action. Muzzles and controls are unnecessary to deal with bad faith actions, and serve no valid purpose to deal with good science that disagrees (or agrees) with policy.

    There is just no justification in that statement for muzzles and controls.


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