The past few years have seen a nearly-unprecedented level of vitriol and distrust directed towards scientific research as an institution and those who work within it. Particularly accelerated by misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19, researchers are having to contend with this new wave of distrust and skepticism.
However, during all of this conspiratorial commotion, a more time-honoured threat to science — political interference — has been less studied. As a new study from researchers at Dalhousie University suggests, Canadian researchers, particularly those in environmental fields, have experienced a surprising degree of interference with their ability to conduct and discuss their research.
The researchers provide some political context for their research, outlining how Canada’s Liberal government attempted to address claims of scientific muzzling under the previous Harper government by enacting a policy that would reduce political interference within over 20 federal departments. However, as the authors make clear, these policies only applied to federal public sector researchers.
To gain a more clear understanding of the degree of interference in Canadian environmental research, the authors of the study conducted a survey of 741 public sector environmental scientists in Canada. The primary goals of this survey were to understand how common interference was, where it came from, how it affected scientists, and whether the interference was different depending on certain characteristics of the scientists.
The survey included both quantitative Likert scale questions (which are used to measure opinions, attitudes, and behaviours) and written responses that were then qualitatively coded by the research team.
The call is coming from inside the house
Among the survey sample, the majority of respondents (63%) were “established” scientists, while nearly one-third were early in their career and 5% were retired. Surprisingly, 92% of all respondents reported that they had experienced interference to some degree.
For those who were asked to make modifications to their work, the most common reason was to “downplay environmental risks or impacts”. One example given involved higher-level executives changing results to minimize supposed environmental impacts. For those who did experience interference, the most common source was senior management (29%), followed by middle management and communications staff.
In regards to the impact on the researchers, nearly one-fifth of respondents reported that restrictions on their public commentary and communication had affected their job satisfaction. Early-career scientists were particularly affected, expressing greater concern about the media and negative impacts on their career if they communicated publicly. Interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the most common environmental area within which scientists experienced interference was climate change, followed by pollution and agricultural impacts.
However, not all respondents experienced this degree of interference: 54% strongly agreed that their organizations allow them to speak to the media freely, while 59% strongly disagreed that their organizations had ever stopped them from answering questions from the media or public. Additionally, the authors highlight an important limitation of their study: the motivation behind interference. Without being able to know which incidents were intentional or unintended, they advise that their results be interpreted with caution.
Nonetheless, they warn that fear of media is a “substantial problem” for environmental researchers in Canada, particularly those in the early stages of their career. They suggest increased communications training and efforts to combat misinformation as potential remedies to this issue.