Proposed model policy on scientific integrity doesn’t go far enough: An outsider’s critique

Guest Contributor
September 17, 2018

Scientific integrity is the adherence to professional values and practices when conducting, reporting and applying the results of scientific activities. It ensures objectivity, clarity and reproducibility while providing insulation from bias, fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, political interference, and censorship.

On July 31st, the Office of the Chief Science Advisor released a draft copy of a policy developed as a result of a Memorandum of Agreement between the Treasury Board and Public Service and Procurement Canada - “Respect of Scientific Integrity”.

One of the main objectives of this policy is to walk back the policy of the Harper government in controlling and muzzling government scientists in their attempts to educate their external colleagues and the Canadian public on what research they are conducting, why it is being done and the implications of their research for science, the government and the public.

It also seeks to increase public, employee and stakeholder trust in the credibility and reliability of government research and scientific activities by departments and agencies. An example of compromised scientific integrity is “withholding of politically unwanted results” or excluding use of certain words like “climate change”.

While the new model policy contains many positive statements in support of government scientists talking about their research - without having to get prior approval from senior management - their ability to talk about their research unimpeded is hemmed in by many other clauses in the policy that implies a “business as usual approach” to muzzling scientific communication with the public.

For example, before talking about their research, government scientists must be familiar with and obey the rules embodied in:

  • Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector;
  • Directive on the Management of Communications;
  • Policy on Conflict of Interest and Post-employment; and
  • Access to Information Act.

All of these appear to take precedence over this model policy.

An explicit barrier that continues the muzzling of scientists is stated in Clause 7.5.3:

“Any communication that includes explicit comments or recommendations on, explicit discussions about federal statutory, regulatory or policy matters does require the approval of [senior management] before submission for publication or being otherwise communicated or disseminated”.

If the government truly wanted to be transparent about the use of scientific advice in policy or regulatory decisions, this clause would have been written so as to allow the pertinent researcher to talk freely about his/her research after the promulgation of the policy or regulation, thus ensuring the credibility of the research and its implications.

There are only two legitimate reasons for temporarily holding back the results of government research - research that has military implications and is still strategic, and research results that have commercial potential and require time to obtain suitable intellectual property protection, such as a patent. This latter reason is only referred to vaguely.

For some reason, this policy wanders into the area of promoting research collaboration with external laboratories, which has nothing to do with scientific integrity.

That this policy seems to dwell a great deal on the researchers adhering to professional research standards appears to imply that government scientists and engineers have a history of “cooking the lab books”.

For the past 30+ years, I have been teaching government scientists and engineers how to be effective R&D supervisors, and in that time I do not remember the topic of scientific integrity (e.g., falsifying research results) being brought up once as a problem. In recent years muzzling was often mentioned as a concern.

This policy should be focussing more on the political and/or bureaucratic interference/muzzling of scientists, and setting out penalties for bureaucrats or politicians for hiding or softening uncomfortable scientific results.

In addition to teaching, I was a science policy consultant, and was never surprised to be asked to omit or de-emphasize certain findings to make a report more palatable for senior management. In recent discussions with fellow science policy consultants, my experience is not unique.

This model policy is a good start but it should direct its attention where the problem truly lies: the hiding of research results from the public. It should also make recommendations on providing the scientists with the financial means to attend scientific conferences and present their results to national or international colleagues.

Thomas E. Clarke, M.B.A., M.Sc., is a partner in Clarke-Reavley Consultants in Nanaimo BC. It provides consulting services in the fields of R&D management, science policy, technology transfer and intellectual property management

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