Want to Talk to a Scientist in Canada? Don't Look to the Federal Government

October 8, 2014 | 9:51 am
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

If you want to talk to a scientist in Canada who works for the government, you might be in for a long wait. That’s the takeaway from a new report that grades the communications policies of 12 Canadian government agencies, which found that many current policies hinder “open and timely communication” between government scientists and reporters, and do little to protect scientists’ free speech rights.

The analysis was conducted by researchers at Simon Fraser University and the Canadian NGO Evidence for Democracy, who used similar methods to those found in a UCS analysis of U.S. government media policies. According to the report, Canadian government agencies are considerably more restrictive and less transparent than their counterparts in the United States.
“Current media policies could prevent taxpayer-funded scientists from sharing their expertise with the public on important issues from drug safety to climate change,” said Dr. Katie Gibbs with Evidence for Democracy. “This information is essential for people to see how science is used in government decision-making, and thus be able to hold the government accountable.”

demonstrator at Speak Up for Science rally

The censorship of Canadian government scientists and other attacks on science have led to protests in Ottawa and cities across Canada. New analysis from Evidence for Democracy finds that current government media policies restrict the ability of scientists to share their expertise with the public and the press. Photo via Evidence for Democracy.

Strong media policies are essential to promoting a culture of scientific integrity within government, and to fully embrace scientific integrity, governments must allow their scientists the freedom to speak. The first step toward better agency practices is having a good policy in place. A good policy also safeguards against those who are tempted to censor government scientists.

Many scientists and Canadian political leaders have expressed significant concern about inappropriate pressures on government scientists. The Canadian Information Commissioner is looking into allegations of the “muzzling” of scientists, and surveys have found that scientists don’t feel that they can speak out even if public health is at risk. Scientists have gone so far as to hold protests in front of the Canadian parliament.

Sounds pretty bleak, right? Well, while many Canadians are likely shaking their heads in despair, I look at the report as the first step on the road to reform.

UCS’s first analysis of U.S. government media policies in 2008 found pretty dismal results, which we used to educate government officials about the importance of transparency. When the president’s science advisor required federal agencies to create scientific integrity policies, we encouraged them to allow their scientists to speak without going through political filters.

Some agencies were quick to embrace openness, while others were more cautious. When the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its scientific integrity policy, then-Administrator Jane Lubchenco went out of her way to stress that scientists have the right to speak to reporters without first seeking permission. As a result, we don’t hear as many complaints from NOAA scientists these days.

In 2013, when we re-analyzed the policies, we found significant improvement. And the response from some agencies that received mediocre or incomplete grades this time around was almost immediate. The U.S. Geological Survey updated its social media policy within four hours of the release of our media policy scorecard. A few weeks later, the Consumer Product Safety Commission created a new social media policy.

Armed with a better understanding of the weaknesses in their media policies, several U.S. government agencies made significant improvements, at least on paper. I hope that Canadian science departments follow suit.

To be clear, we still have a long way to go in this country. Some U.S. agencies still have poor policies, and some of the agencies with good policies have struggled to implement them. Many journalists continue to express frustration that they often have trouble getting government scientists on the record in a timely fashion, and journalism societies have written to the president urging greater transparency.

But meaningful implementation of new policies takes cultural change within agencies, which sometimes requires patience. We find that when leaders inside the agency publicly commit to creating a culture of transparency, change comes more quickly. Agency leaders need to acknowledge the importance of public access to scientists, equip scientists with the skills necessary to effectively engage, and create mechanisms that protect scientists when they are pressured to keep silent.

Openness is especially important during crisis situations such as chemical spills, when reporters and the public need an immediate understanding of what scientists know and what they don’t know about the risks people face. There is a tendency when government agencies are under an enormous amount of scrutiny to want to close ranks, when to earn public trust they really should be putting all of their cards on the table.

When scientists speak up about excessively restrictive policies, their concerns are sometimes taken seriously. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency committed to clarifying the free speech rights of independent scientists who advise the agency after scientists and journalists strongly objected to a new policy that created confusion about how they should handle requests from reporters.

UCS is organizing a letter from non-Canadian scientists urging Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to “remove excessive and burdensome restrictions and barriers to scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”

Non-Canadian scientists can sign the letter here.