Members of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) are demanding changes to how the government deals with “public science,” including reinstating government scientists’ right to speak freely about their research.

Despite a genteel name and image, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) is actually a union representing more than 55,000 “white-collar” employees in the federal government. Yet its public profile has long languished in the shadow of the three-times-larger and more militant Public Service Alliance of Canada.

But in December PIPSC (pronounced “pips”) smashed that image. The union grabbed headlines with bargaining demands for trail-blazing changes in how the government deals with “public science” in general and especially with 15,000 federal scientists and researchers who are PIPSC members. Instead of emphasizing wages and benefits, the institute is asking for unprecedented contract language to protect scientific integrity by restoring the right of government scientists to speak freely about their research and forbidding political interference.

Other negotiating points include a package for professional development — such as regular participation in scientific meetings and international collaborations — and a novel proposal to bolster research budgets weakened by successive rounds of spending cuts.

Channelling this new militancy of federal scientists and researchers is 46-year-old Debi Daviau, who was elected PIPSC president for two years starting Jan. 1, 2014. The daughter of a trade union organizer, Daviau studied at Toronto’s York University and Ottawa’s Algonquin College. She worked as a computer systems analyst in federal agencies, beginning her union activity in 2003. Daviau spoke with the Canadian Chemical News this past January at PIPSC headquarters in Ottawa.

What is public science and why is PIPSC championing it?

Public science is science done for the purpose of serving the public. Private science may very well want to advance scientific innovations but its purpose is its bottom line. The work that our members do is based on a service to the public, as opposed to a service to the bottom line of a corporation.

And why? A number of government capacities have disappeared. They haven’t been privatized, they’ve simply disappeared through government cuts to science and its resources. Several others have been privatized or semi-privatized, sent into the schools or non-government organizations.

Don’t researchers at universities also carry out science in the public interest?

The university produces less biased research and science than the private sector but its ability to link that work to a meaningful result for Canadians doesn’t exist. Public service scientists are not just experts in science; they’re experts in government policy, they’re experts in government process and governance. Their mandate is directly linked to the health and safety of the Canadian public. They’re in a position to generate evidence-based policy, not just science and not just policy.

But, as the president of another union put it to me: while we want the government to do evidence-based policy, the government is asking us to do policy-based evidence. Government says, “Here’s our rhetorical and ideological stance, find us the evidence that supports it.” That’s not science.

In its bargaining strategy PIPSC is asking that half the revenue from the intellectual property associated with research results be plowed back into the agency or department where the research was done, instead of going into general government coffers. Who will decide where that extra money gets spent?

We’re not asking to decide how the government will spend its money; we’re asking for the government to consider that when good innovation in science is happening, they enable it to keep on happening. Our demands package enables a scenario where our members can contribute to some of these decisions.

When you put your bargaining positions forward you also talked about scientific integrity. What does that mean?

For years our science and research members were the least militant of our membership. What changed was a couple of things. The science group got a lot younger and that led to a change in cultural attitude in the group. They actually got more militant, more willing to stand up for themselves and the things that they believed in. The reason why they’re standing up is that this outright attack [by the government] has actually disabled science in Canada, not just public science. So their bargaining teams got together in all of their very earnest passion and talked about what are the most heinous infractions on science and what kind of language can we bring to our collective agreement to address those issues.

Probably the only silver lining in the cloud that is this government is that they pushed us to a place where we had to stand up for ourselves.

It certainly looks now like PIPSC members are in the vanguard, which would not have been the case 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago. There has been a cultural change.

I think you’re right. I think there’s been a cultural shift with our membership. I think there’s also been a political shift with government that’s far less acceptable to our membership.

An aroused membership?

Aroused is an excellent word.

You’ve said that PIPSC isn’t going to abandon its tradition of political nonpartisanship. That means you aren’t going to endorse any specific candidates or party in the federal election, correct?


But you’re sure as heck pointing which way you want your members to vote.

To not vote. Without saying so directly, it is certainly our messaging that this government has damaged science and federal policy in many different ways, has diminished the capacity of government to deliver on important services to Canadians and has caused no end of grief to our members in their toxic workplaces. We will make sure that we’re putting that information in our members’ hands so that they understand why they ought not to re-elect this party. Where the public comes in is making sure the public knows what the impacts of these government decisions are on their well-being.

Does this new militancy among government scientists have the possibility of changing the government’s approach to scientific research?

I think it does. I think there’s going to be a lot of public political pressure on the government to at least change its stance on some of those science issues, even if not on other issues. Our intent with all of this was to marry [our positions to] the notion that there is a federal election, and in the context of that election there is an opportunity for us to bargain beyond the table.