Lawrie McFarlane: It makes sense to ‘muzzle’ government scientists

Scientists working for the federal government want the right to speak out about their research. They object to being “muzzled” by the requirement, currently in place, that they seek permission before talking about their findings.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 15,000 scientists and engineers, intends to make this a bargaining issue in upcoming contract negotiations.

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To ease the way, the union says its members will make clear they are only speaking for themselves, and not the government, if this right is granted. Yet that borders on delusional thinking.

You can imagine the scene: The minister of the environment announces that Canada’s emission standards are appropriate and realistic. Five minutes later, a government scientist tells the media those standards are bogus and fake.

How does that all play out? For a start, any relationship of trust between the minister and the scientist is finished.

Now I understand the point of concern. It does appear petty to drag scientists through a pre-approval process when their research is entirely uncontroversial. But who gets to decide what is controversial?

The unspoken assumption here is that science is simply fact-gathering. Why shouldn’t the facts be spoken?

But across numerous areas of public policy, the “science” is anything but settled. Macro-economics is a crapshoot at the best of times. If anyone really understood how the stock market works, they’d have retired long ago with a fortune.

Income-support policies are hotly debated by opposing sides with almost no common ground. School-curriculum development relies heavily on child psychology, a field that many consider more art than science.

Even where there might be degrees of consensus about a given fact base, there are often widely varying opinions about what should be done.

Climatology is a good example. You can agree that global warming is a reality and disagree fervently about what measures, if any, might be adopted.

This is a cost/benefit analysis, not a climatological matter, and it falls to the government of the day, not some group of experts, to decide which path to follow.

But let’s return to the issue of trust. There’s a line in the movie The Sum of All Fears, where the Russian president tells an American official: “For you to get involved here, it’s like sleeping with another man’s wife, and what you are suggesting is that afterwards they all live together under the same roof. But what really happens is that the betrayed husband goes out and buys a gun.”

That’s basically the problem here. Federal scientists want the right to speak out when they please, but afterward to resume their position as admired and trusted advisers. That’s not what would happen.

For the key point is that these folks are employees, not independent researchers. They have sworn an oath of loyalty to the government of Canada.

And outside the walls of academia, very few, if any, employers would tolerate being contradicted in public by their staff. Especially on a matter of central importance.

Of course, that’s frustrating. I can recall any number of times believing deeply that the government I worked for was making a serious error. Every public servant has had that experience. Scientists have no monopoly when it comes to thinking themselves right and their minister wrong.

But that’s how parliamentary government works. We are governed by people we elect, not experts who are paid to do a job.

The American political commentator William F. Buckley once said he would rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people in the Boston telephone directory than the faculty of Harvard.

In this instance, at least, I agree with him. Scientists play an important role in government, but it does not include jousting in public with their political masters.

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