Public Values

Public Science, 25,000 S & T workers affected by government labs transfers report

Should government relinquish responsibility for leadership and accountability?

The public interests best served by public science, Michele Demers says.by Michèle Demers, President, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada

The federal government's role and ability to deliver science for the public good is now being jeopardized by the Report of the Independent Expert Panel (IPE) on the Transfer of Federal Non-Regulatory Laboratories submitted to the President of the Treasury Board earlier this month.

Of utmost preoccupation for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) is that the Report opens the door to the privatization of federal science, affecting as many as 25,000 federal S &T workers. If this were to be the case, it could well be the biggest federal downsizing exercise since the massive layoffs of the 1990s. Yet, nowhere in the report is there a plan to address the federal S&T workforce. While none of the five laboratories identified as early candidates for transfer face immediate privatization, the Report does not rule out a long term strategy to transfer or privatize other regulatory or non-regulatory laboratories. In fact, the Report states the following:

"Nearly all of the proposals received were viewed as being potential candidates for future consideration in the implementation of a longer-term federal strategy for inter-sectoral S&T integration. In addition to the five Recommended Proposals, the Panel identified a number of other highly ranked proposals that were at a relatively advanced stage of development took special note of a number of other proposals that, while less developed, had considerable potential in areas of national strategic importance. "(Inter-Sectoral Partnerships for Non-Regulatory Federal Laboratories, Report of the Independent Panel of Experts, p.26)

The Professional Institute is also concerned that the public interest has not been fully taken into account. The government will effectively abdicate its responsibilities to Canadian citizens and play second fiddle to the private sector and to academia in by leaving it to them to determine what constitutes the public interest.

Canadians will not be fooled by these new management models. Canadians expect sound science based on the public interest. Citizens are still suffering from the consequences of privatizing the Walkerton drinking water testing laboratory. Why risk going down that path again?

The Report calls for the alternative management arrangements to be in place in one year's time. It also suggests that procurement rules need not be followed in setting up the new partnership arrangements in light of the time, energy and costs associated with accountability. This is abhorrent. The Conservative government campaigned on accountability and is now ready to set aside the rules to suit its private sector agenda.

Canadians expect governments to protect them against risk, to improve the quality of life, and to intelligently manage the natural resources they hold in common. Accordingly, the Canadian public will continue to hold politicians to account, as these issues dominate the news and affect their lives. Canada's public scientists play a vital role in government's capacity to meet these expectations. The Canadian public has expressed the desire for strong public regulators that defend the public interest, a goal which in turn depends on good public science. Building, maintaining and strengthening the infrastructure of public science — laboratories, research institutes, networks, and field research stations — are essential for the work of Canada's public scientists.

Science is expected to be unbiased, authoritative, accountable and credible to the public. Canada's public scientists fulfill these expectations; the rigour and continuity of government-led research make it unique, performing work that cannot be duplicated by university or the private sector. Serving the public good is what public scientists do — their role is preserving the environment, protecting the security of the public as a whole, and contributing to the economic prosperity of all Canadians.

Advancing Canada's national and regional systems of innovation must seek to reinforce, not jeopardize, Canada's existing strengths, especially the vital role of government science. In our submission to the Independent Panel of Experts, the Professional Institute recommended that the federal government work closely with the public and private-sector scientific communities to devise ways of improving Canada's R&D performance.

Further, we recommended that the government build on the existing relationship between government and university-based scientists by facilitating greater interconnections and cross-fertilization of ideas between researchers. We also recommended that greater funding and staffing resources be made available to government scientists in order to carry out the basic and applied science necessary to fulfill their function as public scientists and guardians of the public interest.

Public science plays a unique and indispensable role in Canada. Over Canada's history, government-led science has played a leading part in the development of scientific knowledge and innovation. It is responsible for many of Canada's greatest scientific and technological achievements, from the development of canola, to the discovery of the Ricker curve for determining sustainable fish catches, to the invention of the aviation black box, the artificial heart pacemaker, and the Canadarm. Federal laboratories boast some 25,000 people working in over 198 labs and research facilities located across the country, conducting thousands of collaborative research projects with universities, colleges, hospitals and the private sector.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada believes that Canada needs to bolster science and technology research and innovation in private industry, academia and government facilities. Advancing Canada's innovation effort will entail reinforcing Canada's strengths and addressing the causes of Canada's weaknesses in the R&D effort. Divesting government of its scientific research capacity will not address the complex and deep-seated sources of under-performance, and will jeopardize its present mandate that Canadians expect it to meet. Government science is crucial to Canadians' expectations from government, and the accountability of government to Canadians. Government science benefits not just Canadians, but is critical to Canada's ability to participate in international scientific dialogue and standard setting. The 21st-century transformation of Canada's ecology and economy will test the federal government's ability to understand these forces and respond to urgent public need. There are therefore serious risks involved in relinquishing the capacity to perform public science of the highest calibre.

Michèle Demers is the President of The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a national union representing 55,000 professionals and scientists across Canada.

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
Alberta puts private industry in charge of public health administration

Links and sources
  Independent Panel of Experts on Transferring Federal Non-Regulatory Laboratories, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat website, June 5, 2008
  It's the beginning of the end for federal science: Expert Panel on Lab Transfers, PIPSC press release, June 5, 2008

Posted: June 18, 2008

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