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Federal union rails against disconnect between science, policy

PublicScience.ca, a website for government scientists represented by Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, went on Oct. 18, 2010.

The union that represents federal government scientists says its members feel undervalued, underfunded and are frustrated at being ignored when policy decisions are made.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada has launched a website - PublicScience.ca - that it says will speak for the 23,000 scientists who do research and tests aimed at keeping Canadians safe and healthy.

Austerity measures the Liberal government of the 1990s imposed to tackle a deficit have never been lifted, said Gary Corbett, the union president. At the same time, the Conservatives have imposed restrictions to curtail interaction between the scientists and the media. And there has been a move away from evidence-based decision making, he said.

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The decision to replace the mandatory long-form census with a voluntary questionnaire over the objection of professional statisticians was one more step in what the union calls a worrying trend on the part of the government to discount the importance of the work of its scientists.

The aim of the website "is to bring focus and attention to the value of scientists who work in intramural science, those who work in federal government departments and agencies on things like the quality of water, the quality of air, the quality of toys coming into the country, the quality of the food we eat," Mr. Corbett said.

Cutbacks that started in the 1990s have reached a crucial point, and that means the money to send government scientists to conferences to share research with their peers has all but dried up, he said: "It's just been growing worse and worse."

There is also an increasing reliance on the scientific work done by the private sector - work that Mr. Corbett said is driven by a profit motive and not public protection.

Scientists "are growing more and more dismayed at why certain decisions were made when the science says something else," Mr. Corbett said. The new website will be used to point out contradictions, he said.

The government referred questions about the website to Natural Resources Minister Christian Paradis, but the minister was unavailable to respond on Monday.

John Stone, a former Environment Canada scientist who now teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the frustrations are real.

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"Scientists are there to try to help understand problems and they do that in the way that they are trained, by rigorously looking for evidence and creating models, making projections, all that sort of stuff," Dr. Stone said.

"Their lives are determined by well-honed scientific methods. Sometimes when they see decisions made that seem to ignore the science, they wonder, 'why do I bother?' "

Dr. Stone said the funding squeeze was being felt before he left the public service five years ago. "And my sense, in talking to colleagues, is that it certainly hasn't got any better. If anything it's gotten worse."

Marc Garneau, the Liberal critic for industry, science and technology, was part of the scientists' union when he worked at the National Research Council.

"I think perhaps they are expressing some of the frustration that we've seen in the news recently, whereby it's very difficult for a scientist who wants to express an opinion to do so without going through several hurdles to make sure that they get clearance," he said.

The government is allowed to control the message, he said, "but I don't think it makes for a good democracy."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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