Interference in environmental science is still a major threat to scientific integrity today, as we show in two new studies, out now in FACETS. In the Death of Evidence rallies ten years ago, scientists protested interference in science, and marched with a poster bearing the message: “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.” This rally poster still rings true today.
What is interference in science?
Interference in science is defined as “deliberate actions that result in both the reduced funding or capacity for research activities to levels insufficient to generate knowledge, and/or the inability of scientists to communicate their results to the public or engage in effective knowledge transfer to inform decision-making.” This includes muzzling, undue modification to work, the publishing of partial or misleading reports, a refusal to allocate sufficient resources for scientific pursuits, and suppression of scientific information through social pressure, harassment or threats.
Restrictions on research can limit the information available, and in turn, can threaten democracy by impairing public access to knowledge and the ability to make informed decisions—especially when it comes time to cast a democratic vote. There can also be detrimental consequences for the environment if protective laws, policies, and regulations are not informed by the best-available scientific evidence. In Canada, we are not strangers to the ramifications of interference in science.
It is important to acknowledge that both legitimate and illegitimate forms of interference in science can happen. Not all restrictions on a researcher’s resources are necessarily motivated by ill intentions. Sometimes, a budget cut is just a budget cut. A public tweet which summarizes a study while omitting key findings does not necessarily originate from a science-denying communications intern – it may simply be a case of meeting the format’s character limit. In some instances, censoring information can be necessary, such as redacting information about the habitat of endangered species to prevent poaching.
The War on Science
From 2006 to 2014, Canada was led by a Conservative government that was accused of “muzzling,” or placing restrictions on communication for public sector scientists. In 2012, a protest was held on Parliament Hill to call attention to what federal scientists asserted was a government-led ‘war on science.’ The following year, a study led by the Professional Institute of the Public Service (PIPSC), a public sector union group, found that 90% of public sector scientists felt restricted in their ability to conduct and communicate research. Seven out of ten reported political interference with their work.
In 2015, Canada elected a majority Liberal government who promised to “lift burdensome restrictions” placed on public sector scientists. Despite this, in a follow-up survey in 2015, PIPSC reported that 50% of public sector researchers surveyed still felt obstructed in their ability to conduct and communicate research. 40% reported ongoing political interference.
In 2018, a model for scientific integrity policies was introduced, and implemented across federal science-based departments and agencies in 2019. The policies aimed to foster a culture of integrity in federal public sector science, including ensuring that scientists can communicate with the public about their areas of expertise, and preventing political interference in the conduct or dissemination of research.
But our research reveals that interference in the environmental sciences still persists in the public service today, and across other sectors.
Environmental researchers in Canada continue to face interference
The evidence gathered in our cross-sector study suggests that interference in environmental studies is still occurring in Canada. In fact, 92% of 741 surveyed respondents reported having experienced some degree of interference with their work during their career. Survey respondents reported that research focused mainly on climate change, pollution, and impact assessment for mining, land use, agriculture, and urban development was being underfunded, under resourced, restricted, and interfered with. Research on threatened species, changes to legislation, and Canada’s big natural resource development areas (e.g., logging and commercial fishing) were also identified as constrained topics.
As for the researchers themselves, the studies found that marginalized groups were bearing the brunt of this interference, specifically women, researchers from racialized groups, researchers who identified as living with a visible and/or invisible disability or as 2SLGBTQI+, and early career researchers (i.e., employed in their field for less than five years). All marginalized respondents reported a significantly increased fear of facing negative career consequences over engaging in public commentary. Racialized groups and individuals living with a disability also experienced more external constraints on their work (i.e., from senior or middle management) and/or more frequent undue modifications made to their work. Fear of engaging with the media was higher among early-career researchers, and women.
Overall, our survey respondents indicated that their ability to conduct and communicate work over the last decade has improved. Of the respondents who were aware of the 2018 federal scientific integrity policies, almost half attributed the policies as the reason why their ability to conduct and communicate research had improved.
Although no objective data was collected that could speak to the motivations behind the events that the respondents perceived as interference, the result is the same. Some of the surveyed environmental researchers felt that their ability to conduct and communicate work was being constrained, manipulated, or restricted by a political agenda, thus putting scientific integrity and democratic processes it supports at risk.
Where do we go from here?
From our studies’ findings, it is clear: We must prioritize the accessibility of scientific results to the public and, in spaces where research is being conducted, ensure inclusion and support for researchers of all identities and views. Our research also points to the need for regular studies of interference in science in Canada, and rigorous contemporary reporting on the demographics of environmental research as a way to inform the status of scientific integrity across Canada.
Improving science communication and easing concerns over public engagement via media training could also empower researchers to directly share their results with the public and combat the spread of misinformation. Implementing concrete actions that protect researchers, like anti-discrimination training and education for research employers and partners, would also benefit the scientists who are producing vital information.
In terms of maintaining scientific integrity in our own work, we — as early-career researchers and professionals — know we must try to forge new paths, while also adhering to the rigour, standards, and expectations of those who came before us. Previous researchers, politicians, and leaders have set the standards, but we cannot be afraid to set new and better precedents.
It is vital to ensure that research is held to rigorous standards, that it is ethically designed and carried out, and empirically based. But having integrity as a scientist also means pursuing lines of inquiry that are unpopular or that could challenge the existing knowledge and oppose “how it’s always been done.” We urge researchers to continue speaking out against interference in science. If you don’t work directly in science and research, we urge you to listen.
Manjulika E. Robertson (she/her) currently works as a Research Associate at Westwood Lab and works with Ottawa-based grassroots group, Empower’em, as their Networking and Events Coordinator. Her Master of Environmental Studies at Dalhousie focused on political interference in science in the Canadian context and its impacts on environmental researchers. Manjulika also has a BA in Communications from the University of Ottawa where she completed co-operative education working in several federal government departments.
Samantha Chu (she/her) will begin her Masters in Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University in September 2023 under the supervision of Dr. Alana Westwood. She graduated from Dalhousie University with a degree in Management and a major in Environment, Sustainability and Society in spring of 2022. She worked with Dr. Alana Westwood and Manjulika Robertson to complete her Honours Thesis which was about interference in environmental studies and sciences and the influence of social identity factors.
Alana Westwood (she/her) is an Assistant Professor at Dalhousie University and based in K’jipuktuk (Halifax). Her research and teaching is specialized in environmental impact assessment, management of natural resources, and forestry. Her lab studies the science-policy interface to understand how management decisions are made, and the impacts of forestry and mining on terrestrial biodiversity. With experience in government, non-profits, and industry, she aspires to build bridges across sectors to pursue feasible, inclusive solutions to challenges in the natural resource sector. Find out more at www.westwoodlab.ca and www.alanawestwood.com