Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast. - Macleans.ca

Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast.

Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence

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Getty Images

Every so often, something happens that renews calls in this country for scientists within the federal government to have more unfettered rights to speak to media. This past week, it was the nearly comical number of layers of bureaucracy through which a request to hold a media briefing on the extent of Arctic ice erosion needed to pass. Previously, we’ve seen similar calls motivated by differences between Canadian and U.S. standards with respect to publication of research results or the presence of so-called minders at scientific conferences. I’ve hesitated to write on this despite often engaging in heated discussions on the subject, both on Twitter and in less virtual environments, because it’s not my area of expertise. It’s still not an area in which I have any formal training, and my experience is limited, but I feel that I can comment on some aspects of the debate based on the time I spent on sabbatical at Environment Canada, a department frequently attacked for the so-called muzzling of scientists.

The basic arguments in favour of loosening the controls on government scientists to speak to media often follow from one of two points: either that the research is publicly funded, and so should be accessible to the public; or, that making researchers available to the media would show that the government is hiding evidence that might otherwise undermine its policy agenda. For example, when interviewed at a protest by scientists on Parliament Hill last year, University of Ottawa professor Jeremy Kerr stated that, “the facts do not change just because the Harper government has chosen ignorance over evidence and ideology over honesty.” That’s certainly accurate, at least insofar as the facts being generally invariant to the will of the Prime Minister, but the government of Canada has no monopoly over the facts—there are plenty of entities, government-funded and otherwise, that can do a fine job of holding the government to account externally, as professor Kerr’s comments to the Star illustrate.

Un-muzzle the scientists: Liberal science critic Ted Hsu responds
When science goes silent

For me, the key questions are whether government researchers should, themselves, be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence (Added 2014-08-31  – the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada raised this question in their Big Chill Survey) and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers? To speak out publicly against government policy is, by the current definition, fundamentally at odds with the role of a public servant in our democracy. Public servants are expected to provide impartial advice to the policy development process and loyal implementation of government policies once decisions are taken. They are not supposed to critique that policy publicly when it doesn’t align with their interpretation of the evidence or their beliefs with respect to how that evidence should be weighed. Allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or any other criteria – turns the relationship between the bureaucracy and their democratically elected masters on its head, undermining the trust essential to an effective working relationship.

Many would like to have you believe that there are issues for which we could live in a technocracy—where the science speaks so clearly as to the correct policy that there is no role for any other factors. I can’t think of a single instance where that would be so. Often-cited in debates on the muzzling of scientists is my University of Alberta colleague David Schindler and his ground-breaking work at the Experimental Lakes Area. What did that research tell us? It made clear, for the first time, the link between human activity, in particular industrial sulphur emissions and nutrient effluent from agriculture, and the health of lake ecosystems. It told us about the damages from pollution and was some of the most important and policy-relevant pieces of scientific work in this country’s history. What Dr. Schindler’s research alone could not tell us is what we should do about it. It did not tell us what costs we should be willing to impose on industry to prevent these damages, it did not tell us how Canadian economic activity, trade, and employment would react if certain policies were imposed, nor did it tell us how Canadians would prioritize expenses to defray these damages versus other potential uses of government and private sector resources. In other words, it gave us an important piece of the policy puzzle, but not the entire picture. You can’t prove, with science alone, what the policy should be—science isn’t normative—but only what is and what will be if you take a particular action.

In a policy department like Environment Canada, policy decisions are made through a process that involves bureaucrats from different disciplines including scientists, engineers and economists. Senior bureaucrats interact with the minister’s office, with central agencies like the Department of Finance, and with the Privy Council Office, which acts as the bureaucratic liaison to the Prime Minister’s Office. When a policy proposal is on the table, there are different opportunities for arguments to be made, decisions to be challenged, and evidence to be presented. As an economist visiting Environment Canada for the year, I was fortunate to participate in briefings at every level and to be given the opportunity to present evidence on occasion. Sometimes, that evidence carried the day. Sometimes, I came out of a briefing feeling that I’d lost—that economic evidence as to the best policy option, data on the cost of taking one action over another, or predictions of the likely outcome had been ignored in favour of evidence presented by others. In most cases, it hadn’t been ignored, but it just hadn’t been given the weight I thought it should. You might imagine that it was always those with the lab coats pushing stronger action, while the economists pushed for weaker action. It wasn’t. At the end of the day, senior public servants and elected officials did what they were paid to do: they weighed the evidence and made decisions.

The way the some unmuzzlers would have you believe that the system should work is that, when senior public servants or elected officials take a decision with which the scientists in the room do not agree, these scientists should — and it is largely those in the “hard” sciences that the unmuzzlers are talking about — because they are on the side of the evidence, be free to speak up and to contest that decision in the public arena. The problem with that, as I see it, is that those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence: across the federal government, there are a variety of public servants collecting and compiling data, conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, developing numerical models, and the like. Some are scientists in the conventional sense of the word (i.e. they wear lab coats) while some are economists, sociologists, statisticians, and engineers. It’s impossible to draw clear lines between what is “scientific evidence” presented to senior decision makers and what is not.

Let’s imagine the government is considering a regulation on an industrial sector and, based on the evidence presented, senior decision-makers conclude that the costs in terms of reduced output, employment, and value-added of enacting stringent regulation are justified based on the benefits to the ecosystem and/or to human health presented by the scientists (in this caricature, you can imagine the scientists wearing their lab coats in the briefing if you prefer).  Now suppose that one of the experts involved—an economist in a central agency, for the sake of this caricature—decides that this decision is simply inconsistent with the evidence he or she presented. Suppose he or she decided that, if only the Canadian people were made aware of this economic evidence, they too would side with a “weaker” policy response. Clearly, it’s in the public interest to drop a brown envelope on someone’s doorstep so that the headlines the next morning might read something like, “Government considering regulation that would halt oil sands development, cost thousands of jobs,” with the story crediting an anonymous government economist privy to the discussions, right? That would push the government to make the right decision.

In the caricature I’ve presented, the evidence would all be accurate, but it would be one-sided: the article in the newspaper would show you all of the costs of the policy and none of the benefits. The implication would be clear: that the government had ignored all these costs in reaching its decision, and Canadians should be outraged. The implication would also be entirely false. All that heroic economist would have done with his or her actions would have been to tilt the decision-making process toward their preferred weighing of the evidence. Would it be any different if the decision had gone the other way, toward the less stringent policy, and it were the scientist, clad as ever in his or her lab coat, dropping off the brown envelopes? I think not.

Should we have more open government science? Perhaps. I think the better question is to what degree government-supported research should take place in arms-length agencies (the U.S. model for agencies like NASA and the Energy Information Administration come to mind) or outsourced to universities via government granting agencies as opposed to being housed in policy departments. Research housed outside of government departments would allow elected and bureaucratic offices to determine which questions are being asked by researchers or which subject areas are being explored without having influence over the answers or controlling the message. It would also mean that researchers were not privy to the policy discussions of the day and would not necessarily be involved when their research is used to support a decision. There are also options within the public service: perhaps Statistics Canada could broaden its role to collect and publish more environmental statistics such as the sea ice coverage, which was the subject of so much consternation this week, perhaps absorbing some of the functions now performed within Environment Canada. In the same way in which no one would ask a Statistics Canada official what government should do to combat youth unemployment or to raise median incomes when those data are published, no one would ask whether the extent of sea ice coverage should influence our climate change policy choices. When you’re asking officials from the department with jurisdiction over both our domestic climate change policies and our intervention in international climate change negotiations about sea ice coverage, the implications are very different. The questions to the scientist might even be policy-neutral, but I expect most of the resulting articles would not be.

If you want to take the muzzle off government researchers, that’s fine if you want it for the right reasons. I’m all in favour of increasing the quality of information available both to our decision-makers and to the general public. However, we must do it without skewing the policy process. The only way to make sure that’s true if you want open access to researchers is to disconnect those undertaking primary and policy-relevant research from that process and from those departments. Whether that’s best done through arms-length institutions, through universities, or through agencies such as Statistics Canada is a topic for debate. Of course, there are some topics of current government research not suited to open inquiry, for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re willing to sacrifice some of those topics for access to information? You might also find that some of our government’s best researchers prefer their seat at the policy table to the front pages of the newspaper. Maybe that’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make? Unfortunately, I doubt you’ll be able to rely on anyone in a lab coat to tell you with certainty which is best for the country.

On the other hand, if your reason for removing the muzzle is because you think policy decisions need to be skewed or the government needs to be challenged, then there’s a better process for that that doesn’t involve sacrificing our public service. Rumour has it it will happen next October, if not sooner.


Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast.

  1. “Andrew Leach is the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Alberta”

    Which explains this shameful column.

    • Emily,

      You are aware that the “scientists” on the global warming bandwagon have been 100% wrong….100% of the time correct?

      Ice is expanding, temps aren’t rising, glaciers are not disappearing at the rate predicted..etc..etc..etc..

      I think you are the type who would place judges and scientists on the same pedastal simply because of their “credentials” as you seem to place a lot of weight on someone’s title, as opposed to their products.

      Scientists are wrong more often than they are right…and Judges judgements are often over-turned on appeal.

      Just because someone wears a white coat, or an ermine robe does not make them beyond question.

      Andrew wrote a sensible column, but that being the case, it is no wonder that you are the first to step up with the “outrage of the week”

      Why don’t you just go back to hawking your goods on kijiji….and leave the thinking to those who are far more qualified than are you.

      • Hey hey Jimmie….yer back. And under your old name!

        Well if you can prove climate change is wrong there is a prof in the US who’ll pay you a $30K reward…..so go for it. Or be quiet.

        • It is easy enough to prove the claim by Al Gore’s witch doctor James Hansen’s claim that Venus is a “runaway greenhouse” which might happen to us if we don’t submit to the Orwellian oxymoron “carbon pollution” is laughable nonscience .

          When these two promoters of fear based statism can promulgate such quantitative ignorance for going on decades now , why should any numerate individual not more than doubt this destructive delusion ?

        • Easy Emily…..

          Go look out your window, and check your thermometer.

          Go to the mountains and view the glaciers that were supposed to have disppeared by now. Go to the coast and look at how deep the water is….

          Every prediction the “climate scientists” have made….has been wrong. Every single one of them.

          Now…go to a “climate denier” and refer to what he or she has said in the past….they have been right, every single time.

          the fact you cling to your delusion is not my failing. But keep on believing what you read, as opposed to what you see. Great way to get around in the world.

          • It would be a mistake to believe everything you read – if everything you read is written by a pathological liar like jameshalifax, who simply makes up BS out of thin air, like every bit of his comment above.

          • What if you’re wrong, James?

      • How on earth can you make up things likes this.
        1) Ice is not increasing in the Arctic. You’ve no doubt latched onto articles that repeatedly say that the winter ice growth has been greater than any previous year — but that’s always because the ice has melted more than ever in the previous summer. The ice depth and extent hasn’t increased.
        2) Sure, scientists ARE more often wrong than right. Because you only need one right answer to make up for all the wrong paths you test first. But you can’t GET to right answers unless you can discuss the methods you are using.
        3) And what glacier would you suggest I look at that hasn’t receded? Pick one, go on, I dare you. There are actually a few, but if you can find ANY, I’ll name you ten that have visibly receded in the last two decades.
        4) NOBODY with half a brain would say that scientists have been 100% wrong on climate change. Even the most believable climate change deniers would admit that they’re often right.

    • LOL your ‘conflict of interest’ is in the sentence I quoted….you don’t need shares in the oil sands to promote something.

      You have everything to gain by being an energy prof in Alberta.

      Sorry, I’m not Suzuki, or a member of Green Peace and I have little interest in Alberta energy. We won’t be using the oil fields anyway….the future is going in quite a different direction.

      But to claim that ‘scientists’ [the ones who wear lab coats] can’t give you ‘policy’ is absurd….do they have to do everything for you? The facts alone should tell you what to do.

      • You’ve got it all figured out it seems. Too bad you won’t sign your name to such wisdom.

        • Sorry, I’m not into red herrings. LOL

          • No worries. Thanks for the 4 clicks!

        • This comment has been removed

          • He’s still needy.

      • Emily,

        “The facts alone should tell you what to do”? Have you EVER done science because what you write indicates that you have no clue what you are talking about? Data doesn’t mysteriously whisper into scientist’s ears and policy is completely different from data. Here I have an offer, take a look at this data it is from the Mount Polley mine spill http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/eemp/incidents/2014/pdf/ImperialMiningSupernatant-GeochemicalTailingsPondData2009-2014_20140808.pdf now tell me what that data tells you? Should you close the fishery, close the lake to drinknigwater, close the Fraser River fishery? I have been working on contaminated site clean-ups for 15 years and spent 10 years before that doing policy science and I look at the data and have no idea how to proceed. Even when I sat down with an ecotoxicologst we couldn’t decide how to proceed. Now this is a very small dataset from what seems to be a pretty open-and-shut case. This is what the white coats are looking at and I’ll tell you a secret, the data doesn’t whisper, talk or shout out at you. Sometimes you see data and your personal preconceptions suggest an “obvious” choice on how to go forward. Bring in a couple people with other expertise and you may discover your first plan was completely wrong. That is why we work in teams so we can balance ideas and bounce off approaches. Dr. Leach is right, scientists are great sources of insight, but should never be allowed to run the process alone.

        • So you come on here and tell us you’ve been working on contaminated site clean-ups for 15 years….and you haven’t a clue what to do….!

          Well THERE’S a recommend right there.

          PS…Scientists don’t give you ‘insight’….they give you facts. Politicians don’t have any.

          • So Emily, did you look at the data? The supernatant data looked really problematic with a high pH and some worrisome information, but the initial water samples seem to indicate that it is not a major problem. The straight leachate data looked very worrisome, but the TCLP leachate data completely contradicts it and depending which sample type you want to trust you could come to two alternative suggestions. The Copper in the sediment was high, but not so high as to provide acute toxicity. Selenium was also high but not so high as to be a concern. Still both the copper and selenium could have long-term issues for invertebrates.

            Now how do you want to approach the food fishery in Quesnel Lake? Should the people in Likely be allowed to drink the water? The salmon running on the Fraser, eat or don’t eat?

            You see “facts” don’t talk they provide inputs for decision-making. Most scientists aren’t trained in policy or decision-making, the analytical chemist in Environment Canada who spends 20 years perfecting ICP-MS techniques doesn’t know what to do with the data she produces any more than the lab technician at the hospital would be trusted to do heart surgery. In science we specialize and become exceedingly knowledgeable about our own area of expertise and frankly we also get to think that work deserves to be the center of attention, but we don’t necessarily see the big picture. I can tell you all about the ecotoxicology of that Mount Polley data but I don’t know much about the Fraser fishery in that area or the level of water treatment for the town of Likely, or where there water intakes lie?

            So when you make flippant statements like the ones you have made so far it demonstrates an absolute ignorance of how science actually works.

        • Well, you could always shut it down King Blair. It’s what will happen anyway.

          And I suggest you find a different line of work.

          • As expected your reply showed the lack of insight consistent with your earlier posts.

        • Try the topic here Blair….not fussing about me.

    • Now, why don’t we start with your real name and then we’ll see who is living in the glass house.

      I find this type of reply to be unprofessional, and all too common. And an attempt to muzzle criticism. Especially coming from someone who has tenure.

      I’m not sure you read the G&M, but this letter to the editor appeared July 13th, coincidentally by the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta.

      Social media, privacy

      Re Nine Tips For Using Social Media To Make The Right Hire (online, June 9): There are significant privacy risks when an em-ployer collects personal information about a candidate through Facebook, Twitter or other social media. Political views, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and information about third parties could all be gleaned from public posts. Such information goes beyond what is reasonable for vetting employees.

      Our offices have published guidelines to help organizations navigate social media background checks and privacy laws. Candidates applying for work in the digital age haven’t dispensed with their right to privacy. Employers need to understand privacy laws and act accordingly.

      Jill Clayton, Information and Privacy Commissioner of Alberta; Elizabeth Denham, Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C.

      • Dot,

        Dr. Leach didn’t say that anonymous folks don’t have anything to say, what he suggested is that if you are unwilling to present your real identity for consideration, then you should really lay off on the ad hominems. So no, his statement was not unprofessional it was a pretty obvious point that an anonymous poster has to earn the respect of the community one post at a time and failing that should not be expected to be taken seriously. An anonymous person who makes ad homs should be ignored or demonstrated to be full of hot air. In this case the latter seemed appropriate.

        • Blair,

          Disclosing a conflict does not remove it. One can still be biased. The disclosure in this example only serves to alert the reader of a potential conflict or bias.

          Here’s an example of Andrew using it on me (and btw he knows my full name, background, education etc. as we have exchanged emails in the past). It had to do with train transport of oil/bitumen. Check out the comments:

          Does this fit your criteria that warranted such a comment?

          • Dot,

            Admittedly he was quick to dismiss you in the previous comment, but the fact that he may know you does not help for the rest of the readers out there. Until you had produced the follow-up posts you were a blank slate and he was pointing that out.

            As for disclosure and bias, we are all biased in one way or another. I, personally, believe that my kids are the best in the world, I am biased on that score. Disclosure allows others to identify your potential biases and consider them while taking in the information you provide. Ultimately, if you make a good case you should win the day, but the ad homs thrown Dr. Leach’s way are intended to shut him up so people don’t get a chance to listen to his case.

          • Blair,

            It is more likely it is you who are new here. I have been posting here at Macleans since the beginning. Go into the authors column and select economists Leach, Moffatt, Gordon – any column and I’ll bet you’ll find me (or a variant) in the comments section.

            Here. An Aaron Wherry blog from 2011. Check out my comments on Corporate Income Tax cuts (from someone who had industry experience):

          • Dot,

            Therein lies the rub. As an anonymous commenter you have to earn your stripes each time you speak to a new audience. Often you can have some carry-over but for the most part the benefits of anonymity come with a cost of lost credibility each time you speak to a new audience. I, actually, recognized your handle but could not remember what I had read by you in the past. As I said, anonymity is a two-edged sword.

          • Blair,

            If you go to the link I first provided, he references a lengthy blog he had completed the day before. Have a look at my comments there as well.

            Now, I will not be so presumptuous that my “anonymous” comments there caused him to rethink and expand his position (as he claims it was inspired by twitter chatter) but his second stab at Econ 101 fits nicely with what I have been saying for ages.

            Perhaps that’s where you most recently recognized my handle. And the origins of the McDonald’s reference by Leach.

          • Blair, to those of us who are regulars to this site, Dot has far more credibility than you. We don’t have to do background research to determine her bona fides; she has a recognition factor and reputation that – at this point – she would actually lose if she were to post under her real name.

            What it boils down to is trust and recognition. If you need to do background on those of us who re regulars here but use pseudonyms, it may be harder, but not impossible.

            And if you need to research everyone making a comment to determine whether or not to take them seriously, it must take you a long time to get through some of the comment boards!

  2. The author completely ignores the practices of the Harper government in destroying the capacity of both internal and arms-length organization to do research that is in the public interest. The replacement of the long-form census with a more expensive and largely useless survey instrument is the strongest case in point, but the cutting of funding for research in general is a harmful reflection of the government’s predilection for decision-based evidence-making.

    • Authors generally ignore things which are outside the scope of the post in question. I think you’ll find this happens regularly.

      The census actually provides a wonderful example of what I am speaking about – a professional public servant, Munir Sheikh (who likely never had a lab coat) saw the issues presented by the government’s decision, could not abide by their rationale, and so concluded he could not complete his role as a public servant under those conditions. He was right, but he would have been wrong to speak out against the decision while still in his role as a public servant. That’s the system.

      • “In the caricature I’ve presented, the evidence would all be accurate, but it would be one-sided: the article in the newspaper would show you all of the costs of the policy and none of the benefits.”

        That is definitely not the impression i get is going on. You’re painting the scientists involved essentially as spoiled brats whose noses are out of joint because they can’t get their way.

        So, to follow your point to its logical conclusion, if like Mr Sheikh you happen to strongly disagree with the way the govt is treating publicly funded research or information you would have to quit and effectively end your career? That seems a bit absolutist to me.

        Clearly you have tried to offer solutions/options in this article,but in the end i think you’ve somehow missed the whole point of the muzzling protests. It isn’t a question of trying to usurp the govt or bureaucracies undoubted right to set, change or decide policy; it’s the suspicion that the govt actively attempts to suppress information or research that contradicts its policy objectives. IOWs they aren’t interested in a public debate about the state of the sea ice and how that informs our understanding of climate change – particularly if it might negatively impact resource extraction. In their minds that information might get in the way with whatever plans they have for economic development in the North.[ not to mention feed a good deal of residual skepticism about AGW within the CPC rank and file]
        C’mon Andrew, what possible reasonable excuse was there for not releasing information about record thinning of sea ice at the time? It has nothing to do with who gets to set policy priorties and i suspect you know that. Quite frankly i’d love to hear Dr Schindler’s take on this. I suspect he would not concur with you at all on this point, even if he did support your call for changes to the system. What i hear loud and clear from this article is: we pay your salary[govt] if you don’t like what we do with your research you know where the door is. That’s completely unacceptable in this day and age of “so called” transparency.[ you seem inordinately fond of that phrase for some reason]

      • LOL, yeah okay Andrew.

        How many authors are so full of Bull droppings that they need to argue with their comments section.

        Cons, bully’s even here. Just can’t help themselves trying to ram through what people do not want.

        Vote strategically and rid our land of this vermin.

  3. Readers might want to check out this account of a government communications officer intervening in a reporter’s interview with Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick: http://www.rrj.ca/m25739/

    The Harper government’s position has also been condemned by the Royal Society of Canada, our most authoritative national scientific body, here: http://rsc-src.ca/en/about-us/our-people/our-priorities/committee-intervention-let-government-scientists-do-their-jobs The Canadian Science Writers has also written an open letter of protest to the Prime Minister, and the prominent science journals Science and Nature have registered strong objections, as has the New York Times.

    With respect, Mr Leach’s arguments do not touch on the very substantive concerns respecting this government’s policy changes raised by some of the highest scientific authorities in Canada and internationally.

    • Thank you!

      I can’t believe people who dismiss scientists….it’s a good thing we don’t allow stake-burning anymore!

    • Sandy,

      When “government scientists” stop being activists, and once again start doing “science” then maybe you will have a point. As it stands now, so many scientists have their reputations staked on the inevitibility of global warming…they cannot go back now.

      these people are protecting their reputations, and they stopped giving a damn about real science a long time ago.

      • It never fails to amaze me how a troll like you just “knows” what is motivating scientists. You realize you are engaging the very same behaviour you accuse people you clearly know nothing about, don’t you? No, of course you don’t!

        • KCM2

          Try this…..

          Please provide an example of where these “climate scientists” have been correct about climate change being caused by man. Simply regurgitating what they have said is not adequate….I am looking for real proof, something anyone can see, or observe.

          One example. All I’m asking you to find…and remember, it must be proof that MAN is causing the changes.


  4. What a great article! So relevant in the current context of the Alberta government. To what extent are public servants responsible for the decisions of those elected, or required to respect the boundaries of the post they’ve taken up?

  5. Dear Prof. Leach,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Although I do not agree with much of your view on scientists (I being one) I understand that when coming to a conclusion one must consider all factors including economic, scientific, and social impact to come to a full, informed decision.

    I think a major problem and misunderstanding is that scientists are seen as having many times hidden agendas. Although I cannot speak for all, I believe I am like the “average” scientist and perform my research because I am genuinely interested in asking questions and discovering things that were not previously known. Many colleagues in my field are equally qualified to pursue careers in other fields such as consulting or industry, but a constant through most scientists is that we believe strongly in doing unbiased research.

    What one must remember is that scientists use a tried and tested process called the scientific method to make these new discoveries. That means we come up with a hypothesis, test it and then based on the data we come up with conclusions, which can then be further tested. If through further testing these prove to be wrong, we come up with another hypothesis and develop new rounds of testing. Therefore, by the time a scientist comes to the point where they believe strongly in a finding, it isn’t that they have just come up with it unexpectedly. It has undergone strenuous testing and is the best conclusion based on the evidence presented.

    Scientists therefore become upset by articles like the one you wrote since contrary to their presented evidence, policy makers influenced by economic professors such as yourself tend to do what is best for the economy and the environment gets second thought at best. Now I do not claim to understand economics as well as you, but as a Canadian I feel it is my responsibility to give my children a country that hasn’t been raped by the greed of today at the expense of tomorrow.

    Policy should not be made for nearsighted, 4 year time periods but instead take into mind the kind of Canada we hope to become in the future. The Canada I hope we become is not only prosperous, but a world leader in environmental sustainability. For that to happen, we need to begin listening to scientists and give them back their voice.

    • Robert_B, this statement exposes the flaw in your view “economic professors such as yourself tend to do what is best for the economy and the environment gets second thought at best.”

      it signals you assume economists tebd to be neo-classical pro-growth Milton Friedman disciples. your statement and the assumption it sheds light on are patently false. not all economists or economics professors favor lax environmental regulation. most who have given it any serious thought favor optimal environmental policy. big difference.

      just like your straw man that all researchers are pure knowledge seekers that use no filters or biases in choosing their research topics, designing experiments, or reporting their results, your characterization of “economists” needs a re-evaluation.

    • Robert,

      Your caricature of the “ideal scientist” completely ignores the reality of modern science. Every scientist is beholden to some funding source from a university, to NSERC, SSHERC, an employer, etc… The age of the self-employed pure scientist died around the same time as Sir Fracis Bacon, and every funding source comes with strings and limitations. Government scientists knew what they were signing up for when they were hired and if they are annoyed thereafter then, the honourable thing to do is find a more amenable pace to work.

      As for your further point, you describe a process to come to an answer to a single isolated problem: hypothesis, test, refine, re-test publish… but that doesn’t answer the real world problems out there. In my earlier point I described the start of what are referred in the literature as “wicked problems” these are problems with no obvious answers where the good for some are balanced off with the bad for others and where easy answers don’t exist. That is the world we live in now and it involves a lot more people than the scientist is her lab. Moreover, scientists aren’t saints and can become narrowly focussed often to the exclusion of others. Do I get the new mass spec to allow me to pursue my research or maybe should those funds be used to fund a Chair in oncology at the children’s hospital? In the real world where finances are not unlimited hard decisions are going to be made that will piss some people off. Ultimately, we elect and pay our politicians to make those hard choices. If your choice for politician did not get elected, well that happens, you were outvoted and your voice while listened to, was not heeded.

      • I’ve read your posts with interest Blair. I really can’t find fault with much of your argument for scientists or researchers having to submit to a process that is much larger than their individual area of competence.Most institutions seem to work on this model, from govt science to public education. Someone has to look at the larger picture and make difficult judgment calls from time to time. Still, i feel you are completely missing the point of the unmasking protest in much the same way AL has in this article. It isn’t just about the process and who gets to set priorities or make difficult final decisions[ many of them political and outside the remit of most scientists] It is about the perception that has grown up over time that the Harper govt actively seeks to censor or suppress research or data it doesn’t like. It may be that accusation is overblown or has been exaggerated by the part of the media[ who love conflict above all else] but nonetheless THAT is the point at issue – not who gets to call the shots. I’m at a loss why AL doesn’t seem to want to address this head one. Maybe he feels its just the overall weight and inertia of bureaucracy that gives this false impression? If so he should just say so. Personally i think the weight of evidence lends credence to the suppression of unwelcome data theory. No doubt previous Liberal govts, indeed govts in general, engage in some varient of this ; nevertheless it fits the MO for this particular govt – pushing the envelope on partisan activity in all sectors of govt. And the accusations are not just coming from the scientific community – this charge of over politicizing all areas of govt that touch on policy making are now widespread and common place.
        As for Andrew, i wonder how he might react if his area of research should come to be not only challenged by say Enbridge or the UoA, but posts such as this one, subject to the scrutiny of some “minder”? Obviously he’d be unhappy. So does it come to this, that the salient point in both your arguments is that the govt can use the process to suppress/ ignore, even denigrate whatever evidence/research it doesn’t like merely because it ultimately calls the shots. Looks like it to me. If Ottawa’s political arm really is that long, then i agree with Andrew on this point – things badly need changing.

        • KCM2,

          In reading your post, I tend to agree with most of what you have to say. I do agree that there has been an increase in gatekeeping by the bureaucracy and a lot of the suppression of information in recent years has more to do with controlling the government message than anything else. So I suppose the question lies in what to do about it? One thing is clear, most publicly funded research should be readily available to the public (with understandable limitations for security etc..). I shouldn’t need to do a FOI request to get basic datasets and metadata like arctic ice coverage. I’m still wondering how to make the actual scientists available without too many filters but based on some of the gov’t scientists I know some filtering is necessary to keep the inflammatory rhetoric down to a dull roar.

          I like the idea of moving certain agencies to an arms-length status but fear how doing that would affect their ability to conduct the work and maintain their funding. Arms-length bodies don’t have ministers there protecting their budgets and as NASA discovered recently, can end up with the arms-length body struggling to survive cuts.

          So ultimately my answer is somewhat disappointing, I don’t have any easy answers, because I don’t think there are easy answers. I do agree with both you and AL that things need to change as we are moving in the wrong direction on this topic.

          • Thx for the thoughtful response. You raise another troubling development that to be fair precedes the Harper[ although i believe it has gotten considerably worse under their management] That is that we no longer seem to have strong minister who in some respects act as a buffer against centralized govt dictat. Donald Savoie[sp] has written interestingly on this tendency of power to be far too concentrated at the centre of Canadian politics. It’s a worry. Although i’m a Liberal and obviously no fan of our current govt, i can easily see a future Mulcair or Trudeau govt giving in to the same tendency to manage everything from a central power base. It’ll certainly be tough for either one of them to set up buffers in the system to counter the present unhealthy trend.

    • I disagree with the notion that government scientists are being muzzled. They are allowed to publish in peer reviewed journals and speak at scientific conferences where their comments are “refereed” by competent scientific attendees.

      The so-called restrictions that are being imposed are the same restrictions imposed on scientists (and most employees) in the private sector. i.e. comments to the public or media directly to a non-scientific audience must be approved.

      Government scientists seem to be expecting the freedom of a university scientist. If they want that freedom, they should go work for a university. But they have chosen to work for the government (or if you choose to work for a business), when then you have to expect a narrower version of free speech to apply. i.e. where that speech should be filtered through the proper refereed filters.

      i.e. The restriction is basically on PR and self-promotion speech, because their work inside government (or a business) is only one of the streams of information that go into the process of making a government decision. Actual scientific speech through peer reviewed journals and conferences is not restricted.

      • Sure, in the private sector minders walk around along side scientists to make sure they don’t say anything embarrassing to the company.[ hope the sarc isn’t too evident] I’m pretty sure there are no currently protesting scientists out there who claim they faced exactly the same restrictions under previous Liberal or PC govts – certainly not overt, systematic muzzling.

        i.e. The restriction is basically on PR and self-promotion speech,…”

        That i suspect is a completely unsupported bit of generalized BS. You don’t have a shred of evidence for it, and like all unsupported assertions can be dismissed without evidence.

        • KCM2 noted:
          “That i suspect is a completely unsupported bit of generalized BS. You don’t have a shred of evidence for it, and like all unsupported assertions can be dismissed without evidence.”

          Bit of a double standard you have there KC…..

          There is not a SHRED of evidence that Man is causing global warming…and yet, you jumped on the bandwagon without a second thought.

          You seem to think that just because someone has the word “scientist” in their title, means they are infallible.


          • “There is not a SHRED of evidence that Man is causing global warming…”

            The stupid – does it really burn or is it more like a gentle massage?

      • ” They are allowed to publish in peer reviewed journals and speak at scientific conferences …”

        I could be wrong (no time to check just now) but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen articles on this very site that have said they first have to seek gov’t permission before engaging in these activities – and that it is THAT much more so than policies that ignore their findings that irk so many in the science community.

    • Robert,

      Thanks for your comment, and apologies for the delay in response. I don’t think that scientists as a whole have some sort of hidden agenda. I think, as your final paragraphs illustrate, you will have views as we all do on the appropriate policy response given evidence. Unfortunately (?) the appropriate weight to apply to future generations is not something which can be known with certainty so, while you say that you hope to see Canada as a world leader in environmental sustainability, that’s a platform on which to get yourself elected, not a view that comes from being a scientist per se. I understand the scientific method well, and it is not something which is reserved for the hard sciences – we use the same approach in economics – but there is still interpretation. For example, you have assumed that an economist would look at the economy over the environment, and that is simply not true. An economist would view the environment as an integral part of the economy, consisting of goods which have both use (resources, renewable and non) and non-use (aesthetic, existence, eco-system services, etc.) values. Economic analysis would then look to determine things like, “how much is this worth,” or is the production associated with this activity still viable if you consider the costs of pollution and, as in your last paragraph, how much weight to assign to the costs imposed by current production on future generations. More often than not, when someone says, “economists say X, but I tend to think of the world like Y,” they are expressing in Y something much closer to how economists actually analyze the world.

  6. Andrew,

    I’m not going to harp on this topic much. You at least, it appears to me, have engaged and reflected on some critical commentary on some topics.

    But, since you are touting your sabbatical to Environment Canada, perhaps you could answer some questions concerning what you did there – in particular areas where your view carried the day, and when the Enbridge sponsorship was first discussed with you.

    I seem to recall the announcement was made after you had completed your work at EC, while in transit back to U of A. Had it been discussed with the Acting Dean (the former Enbridge Professor) prior to your sabbatical? These things don’t happen overnight, and notwithstanding that it was a U of A decision, I can’t imagine that the idea of your candidacy was not at least floated with the sponsor beforehand.

    • It was known to EC officials within 10 minutes of it first being mentioned to me.

      • Well, if I was to parse your non-answer answer, this means:

        1) More likely before or during your tenure than after
        2) Someone somewhere had recognized a real or perceived conflict-of-interest prior to EC officials being notified.

        The complicating factor here is timing. It seems to me that this was during a period when significant changes were made to Canada’s environmental laws that arguably are more industry friendly.

        The fact that EC officials presumably did nothing may suggest they may have wanted a pro-industry perspective at the table. Who knows.

        • Your definition of “fact” is laughable.

          • Read the whole sentence. It was qualified by “presumably”.

            In other words, a “presumed fact”. But, feel free to share details and the joke.

  7. This comment has been removed

    • Post it again. I never even saw it….and censorship isn’t Canadian.

  8. Excellent article that demonstrates the complexities of developing policies. But as most of the comments show the Harper haters don’t really care about such complex issues.

    But more to the point, science is NEVER settled. We are now finding out much more about the climate change debate that is revealing. For example, if we bought hook, line and sinker Mann’s hockey stick model, governments would have stopped all use of fossil fuels. But as it turns out over the last decade, his hockey stick was mostly false and no credible scientist will even touch it (although the MSM still loves it and Mann – go figure).

    Science throughout the centuries have changed their mind on ‘the facts’ – but it is not changing their mind on a whim, but rather on new evidence. We see the same thing with the magical treatment for MS – turns out it was not the be all and end all and yes some people had to pay a lot to get the treatment in other countries. But an actual study of the treatment has shown that it is ineffective. What would have been the cost to provincial health care budgets if the initial study had just be accepted – it would have been HUGE.

    • If you can prove your views on climate change there is a professor in the US that’s offering a $30K reward. Go nutz.

      He’s had no takers so far.

    • You seem to be implying that only “Harper Lovers” like you catch or expose bad science. Thankfully there is a peer review process in place among scientists, and we aren’t left with no option but to listen to the, i told you so better knowers, who seem to mainly inhabit the right side of the political spectrum for some reason. There was a time when Conservatives respected, even revered empiricism and ratinal process. No longer, It seems many of them seem to prefer hyper partisan political rhetoric and canned blinkered ideology.

  9. The problem with this column is the assumption that the issue of “muzzling” scientists is preventing them from dissenting with government policy; the largest problem with the way the current government prevents public service scientists from speaking with the media and the public is that it prevents the discussion of facts and research. The latest issue with the ice melt revelations is just one of many examples – the request was not to have a media release to attack climate change policy, the request was to be able to share data on ice cover and compare it to historical norms.

    Preventing government scientists from releasing and discussing their findings and data, whether with the media or through scientific journals and conferences, is the true tragedy of the policy of “muzzling” this type of discourse with the public.

    • Exactly! The fact it wasn’t a big deal for US researchers to release the same data only makes your point stronger and more obvious. I vaguely recall this govt even attempting to put the same kind of media restriction on a US[ maybe European?] researcher who was working in Canada or with Canadian researchers. He basically told them to F off and released anyway.

  10. Excellent piece, Dr. Leach. Also excellent is your restraint against the predictable group of poseurs, er, posters who quickly festoon the comments section with the same canards, completely irrespective of what you write about. You could write a personal observation about Miley Cyrus twerking and very quickly someone would point out you’re the Enbridge Professor of Energy Policy and, accordingly, can’t be taken seriously.

    Concerning this most common allegation – that the position you advance on every issue is somehow tainted because a a corporate sponsor contributes millions of dollars to your university – it never fails to amaze me how, in the minds of your detractors, this issue never works in reverse, i.e. the fact that a billion dollar company doesn’t throw a little largess at you or your NGO doesn’t have any impact whatsoever on the conclusions you draw from your research thus unfunded. Or that scientists or any other person in the employ of government is to be regarded as pure as the driven snow and unsaddled by any bias, conflict or personal axe to grind but only, of course, to the extent they speak out against government (or, more precisely, the current federal iteration).

    Perhaps those who recoil with horror when good corporate citizens financially support academic institutions can reach for their cheque books to make up the funding shortfall that would be the consequence of what they apparently wish to see.

    • Sorry Firewall, Canadians aren’t going to redo Galileo.

      That time is past.

  11. “To speak out publicly against government policy is, by the current definition, fundamentally at odds with the role of a public servant in our democracy.”

    What a fundamentally flawed understanding on how a democratic society works. They let you write for Macleans?

    The key word here is PUBLIC servant. Not government servant. You would have us be silent puppets to those who are who are often prone to making poorly reasoned risks and choices against the best interests of the public.

    • “Silent puppet” is actually a pretty apt description of a good, professional public servant. Being “prone to making poorly reasoned risks (edit: how does one “make” a “risk”) and choices against the best interests of the public” is as common among bureaucrats as politicos, in my experience.

      • Technically every doctor in this country is a govt employee….a civil servant etc.

        Suppose the govt starts telling them what they can say, and what they can do?

        We could be back to leeches and bleeding that way.

        • Your analogy is false – that the consideration one receives for one’s services derives from government does not make one a government employee, or “public servant”. Put another way, notwithstanding they are both paid out of the same government coffers, a doctor and a Environment Canada scientist do not have the same job.

          • I’m afraid they are all public servants….as are the police and firefighters.

            Different jobs but employed by govt. Govt employees. Public servants.

        • Emily noted:
          “We could be back to leeches and bleeding that way.”

          ACtually, Emily….they still use leeches in some types of re-attachment surgery. Leech saliva prevents clotting, and this helps the severed limb reattach more effectively.

          Yet another thing you are completely obliviouls about, but yet feel the need to comment upon.

          Keep up the good work.

    • You may wish to enrol in a basic civics course – public servants in Canada would be more appropriately termed civil service, and were for some time. The civil service serves the government of the day, and via that government, the people. It is not a technocracy at liberty to make its own decisions as to the will of the people – that’s why we elect a government.

      • No, it’s not a technocracy. Unfortunately we don’t have one of those….it’s a straw man here.

        ‘The Public Service of Canada, known as the Civil Service of Canada prior to 1967, is the civil service, or bureaucracy, of the Canadian state’


  12. Great article, Andrew. Thanks for wading into the topic with this level-headed perspective.

    My feeling is:
    -All tax-payer funded research should be easily accessible to the public.
    -Researchers and scientists need to be able to speak to their research, answer questions, etc.
    -It is not appropriate for them to project opinion on the public policy they inform. It is appropriate they face threat of discipline if they do.

    One thing I noticed in this piece is that there is almost an implicit definition (intentional or not) suggesting science IS the folks in lab coats. And a suggestion that when the labcoats hand over their “science” to their political masters, along with other “science” handed over from other labcoats, “science” has now ended, and now the policy makers begin employing other tools, separate from science, to weigh that science and other various “outside of science” inputs for their decision (ideology, values, morals, ethics).

    But every one of those inputs and every tool employed in weighing them are all equally the realm of science. Science encapsulates logic, reason and rationality—the tools used to weigh the inputs. And if logic, reason and rationality are not the tools being used to inform a policy maker’s ideology, values, morals and ethics, my goodness what is? And what on earth are they doing in a policy making capacity?

    • I agree wholeheartedly with your three points (listed as your “feeling”).

      The problem with the current government is that they simply don’t want to make public any information that might potentially show flaws in their ideologically driven policies. They try to stave off discussion and debate by suppressing that data that may lead to debate.

      It is not the scientists’ role to debate policy; it is their role to supply the data that the rest of us debate, and use in part to decide how to vote. Harper wants to keep us blind and knowledge-free, in the hope that it will be harder to call him out on his ideological blunders.

  13. My feeling is this government has far less of an issue being anti-science than it does just being honest.

    I think those who complain about his government muzzling scientists are often more accurately upset, as the article suggests, at the weighing of evidence. It just ain’t going their way. Tough beans, October 2015 is coming. But for me, there’s a bigger offense. How the government communicates its priorities and decision making criteria. A government owes it to the public to be explicit and honest about exactly how they are weighing the inputs or “science” they collect.

    But what I’m seeing are frequent examples of where the priorities and criteria the government openly states it employed in a decision, isn’t mapping to the evidence it claims to have weighed. That is not because I’m weighing that evidence against a different priority or value, but because their stated priority or value doesn’t line up to the decision. This leaves the impression they are either a) enacting terrible reasoning, or b) are not being honest about their priorities, values, etc. I vote B. Most likely because there’s a little mentioned priority and value of “keeping power” that governments never like to discuss. There is a distinct impression that, although all governments employ this priority in weighing policy decisions, the Harper government seems to employ it to a larger, more frequent and weightier degree than any other government we’ve seen (though would be hard to imagine a single larger scaled instance than the ON Libs power plant scandal). Though I will quickly point out it feels that way, and some science would be required to confirm. :) 

  14. Unless the thickness of sea ice is a matter of policy rather than evidence, the author has simply played bait and switch on readers, who then followed the bait.

    The muzzles most recently applied prevented scientists from discussing evidence (e.g. sea ice thickness). Canadian scientists much be a much more unruly bunch than those in the USA, needing 9 layers of muzzles. The US government (from W. Bush’s presidency onwards) finds 2 sufficient to prevent all but the handful of approved people from speaking to media.

    What policies should follow from the evidence on ice thickness or coverage, that’s for the policy makers to decide. But the fact that sea ice extent is declining in the Arctic, as is the thickness, is not for policy makers to decide. And scientists studying such matters should not have to chew through 9 muzzles to tell Canadians — who are paying their salaries — what their research has found.

    • “…the fact that sea ice extent is declining in Arctic…”

      Fact? You’re clearly not up to date on your data. The anomalous
      minimum Arctic ice cover in 2012 is old news. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, the ice pack area increased from Aug. 15, 2012, to Aug. 15, 2014, by 1,408,000 square kilometres — i.e. by 29 per cent.

      The current ice coverage, which will begin its seasonal growth in less than three weeks, is well within the range of statistical probability. The breathless excitement of the Canadian Ice Service, two years ago, was much ado about nothing. Average ice thickness “may” be less than the 30 year average but, unlike area, the data regarding ice thickness is far from certain.

      Lee Morrison

      • It seems my original response never made it through. I included a couple of links.

        Scientists use more than 2 years of data to decide what climate is doing. When you cherry-pick your start at a record minimum, there is no where to go but up. Nobody expects a record minimum to occur every year. This year will likely finish above the record minimum of 2012 as well. That’s weather. It will also likely finish with less ice than any year before 2007. That’s climate. In fact, every year 2007 to present has had less ice than any year before 2007. That’s climate with some confidence. You can verify all of this with the NSIDC’s figures (data set G02135). Or you could ask Canadian scientists if they weren’t muzzled. If you would like a longer record, the Chapman and Walsh analysis goes back to 1870.

        Sea ice thickness is not as easily observed at large scale, but it has been since the 1950s via nuclear sub and some satellites. Average thicknesses of over 3 meters 1950s-1976, down to 1.8 meters in the 1990s. See Rothrock and others, Geophysical Research Letters, 1999. (That’s enough for google scholar to give you the link — this site objected to my doing so.) In the 2000s, Canadian researchers have been taking observations from the new icebreaker fleet as well as working on/with satellite observations. You could know about this work if they weren’t muzzled.

        Interesting that below you describe/dismiss me as a modeller. While that’s one of the things I do, I’ve published more and spent more time on observing. Mostly observing sea ice, and in recent years I’ve added sea surface temperature. For the sea ice observing, one of the purposes has been for climate reanalysis. See the North American Reanalysis, and the Climate Forecast System Reanalysis and Reforecast publications.

        I’ve also engaged in a bit of theory — regarding the predictability of sea ice (J. Glaciology, 1994). The theory winding up pointing out that thinner ice is less predictable. If my theory is correct, then, the thinning Arctic is also a less predictable Arctic. Last couple of years, others have taken up the question observationally and are confirming my theory.

        Of course I don’t speak for my employer (the Environmental Modeling Center of the US National Weather Service, in NOAA). Neither do my Canadian colleagues. We all understand that even if Harper and Leach do not.

    • But that’s just the point. Any scientist’s work on Arctic ice thickness that was publicly funded should be made readily and easily available to all Canadians. That scientist(s) should be free to clarify, answer questions and speak to their work. But they are not in a position to, for example, then extrapolate and publicly criticize the governments failure to price carbon. That criticism is required, but it needs to come from someone not being paid to inform the government on a particular input of many, many inputs.

      • Indeed Gary, that’s most of my point — unlike the original author who fails to distinguish between the evidence (which, we’d hope, is used to construct policy) and the policies. As a scientist (working on sea ice, but not in Canada), I and my Canadian counterparts know a fair amount about ice.

        What, if anything, the price of carbon should be … I don’t know. Neither do they, as they’ll tell you if they weren’t muzzled. But we do get annoyed to hear, for instance, a politician say “Our national policy should be X because Arctic ice is recovering.” The citizens who paid for my colleagues work should be able to hear what the result of that work was. Which is, unfortunately, that there’s no recovery.

        • RGrumbine,

          Since you seem to be disputing the NSIDC data and “know a fair amount about ice” I think that in fairness you should identify the agency for which you work on sea ice.

          • Lee,

            Alternatively, you could look up Dr. R. W. G. Rumbine at NCEP yourself and look a bit less foolish, but feel free to go either way…oh wait, never mind.

          • Blair…Zing! Thank you Dr Rumbine. In a couple of succinct comments you have managed to encapsulate much of what i and others have been trying to get to get at – Andrew’s article completely misses the point of the protests, indeed it may indeed be as you say a case of bait and switch. If so i hope it was unintentional and merely poorly thought out.

            “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”

            I don’t know if this subtitle appears in the article, or even if AL authored it; but it too is an egregious bit of misdirection. Who is saying they do Andrew? And what on earth has it to do with the public’s right to see that evidence anyway? It even bizarrely seems to suggest there may be someone elsewhere in the bureaucratic and political foodchain who has a right to question the validity of hard scientific evidence purely for political or policy reasons. What reason could there be as i asked earlier [ and Dr Rumbine echoed] for factual evidence about sea ice thickness being withheld from those in the public domain who may wish to access that data? I submit zero!

          • Oh, my goodness me, Blair King. The man is a famous modeller, and I’ve never heard of him. Oh, the shame of it! Anyway, thanks for answering my legitimate question even if you felt obliged to do so in a backhanded way.

          • Lee,

            My point was that when people comment using real names it doesn’t take too much effort to see if they might know what they are talking about. Googling R Rumbine and sea ice made the connection immediately.

          • Lee parlayed looking foolish into a lucrative career.
            Though it wasn’t in front of children at birthday parties, and,sadly, was paid for by us all.

    • Indeed.
      I’ll give Leach the benefit of the doubt and assume that the giant straw man he’s erected here is the result of writing outside his expertise and wasn’t done in bad-faith, though I’ll be reading his pieces a lot more skeptically after this.

  15. this is nutz,
    Not only should “science” guide our gov’t, but it should lead our gov’t in all facets.
    Science deals with facts and numbers, and NOT with corruption, lying share-holders, lobbyists, and wall street.
    Mr. Leach should know these “facts” above others. -what a putz Leach turned out to be.

    • You really be believe that “Science deals with facts and numbers”.
      Scientific fact is that all climate models over predicted AGW and therefore have failed. Still most scientist would let you believe the catastrophic global warming is happening and real.

      “To capture the public imagination,
we have to offer up some scary scenarios,
make simplified dramatic statements 
and little mention of any doubts one might have.
Each of us has to decide the right balance
between being effective,
and being honest.” Steven Schneider

      I think of climate and related scientists as “Merchants of Despair “ as they make there living from the misery of mankind.

      • Yeti, how many degrees C would global mean temperature have to rise over the next 50 years before you’d consider it ‘catastrophic’ warming?

        • What is the perfect temperature for the planet? And can the government by taxation and picking winners and looses in the private industry change the climate? Should people dictate how others should live or even have a right to live but they themselves live the lavish energy consuming lifestyle?
          And as I pointed out before how can the scientific community hold scientist like Paul Ehrlich in it’s highest regard? Mr Population Bomb has never gotten anything predicted correctly in his entire life.
          Just think if we would had followed his advice and introduced population control and stopped sending food to the developing world. Today he would be seen as a hero averting the disaster he predicted.
          And we would never know that all his perditions would never have taken place. Children would have been prevented from been born and countless people in the 3 word would have starved for nothing but for Paul’s fame and fortune.
          By the way the antarctic sea ice extend has another record year, but you know that already from your trusted scientist and the mainstream media.

          • I know about the Antarctic extents because I compute them myself from the original satellite data. See my recent article ‘Data are ugly’ at my blog moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com

            I notice that in the midst of your sputtering, you never do define what you think would be catastrophic. Of course there can’t be a catastrophe by your standards, then. You have no standards.

          • As you consider my explanation “sputtering” I would speculate that your thinking is if we use the precautional principal and stop producing CO2 everything will be fine. That is a rather simplistic and from my point of view wrong solution to a non existent problem.

          • “By the way the antarctic sea ice extend has another record year, but you know that already from your trusted scientist and the mainstream media.”

            Who do you think collects and processes that data – The Heartland Institute?

        • University of California and NASA reported this May that “The catastrophic collapse of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet is underway”.
          Reading up what they found out it turns out that scientists think that the West Antarctic will melt and disappear over the next 1000 years. An event that takes place over a time span of 1000 years choosing the wording catastrophic collapse is more than just a bit misleading I think.

  16. This op-ed is bizarrely based on a straw man argument. Federal gov’t scientists aren’t complaining that their personal policy opinions are being muzzled. They’re complaining – and so is the media and savvy citizens – because their ability to communicate the science itself – just the facts, no spin – to Canadians (typically by communicating with the media) – is being muzzled, as their quashed attempt to communicate their expert info on Arctic melting in 2012 perfectly illustrates. Even disseminating their published reports is subject to political interference: the periodic (every 5 or so years) national climate assessment – hundreds of pages of extremely important science in the public interest – was buried on a government website with nary a tweet or press release as soon as it came out a month or two ago. It got all the media attention of a state secret. The corresponding global (IPCC) and US reports were trumpetted to the public with all due attention.

    Public scientists know very well that their policy views on the science they do are off topic and that it’s inappropriate for them to mix them into their communications as civil service professionals. That’s not the kind of muzzling they – and I, as a citizen – resent. Stop muzzling their attempts to fulfill their civic role as communicators of science to the public which is the fount of democratic policymaking.

  17. Dr. Rumbine,

    “Nobody expects a record minimum to occur every year…That’s weather”. Bingo! The Canadian ice service glommed onto this wildly anomalous value and the “warmist” contingent promoted it as evidence of the coming apocalypse.

    I find your reference to average ice thickness of about three meters surprising. This is purely anecdotal but, when I worked on the Joint Arctic Project on Ellesmere Island from 1950 to 1952, we did ice measurements the hard way (no ice augers on our stations in those days). I never saw a thickness greater than two meters for new ice shortly before break-up.

    • Whoops.
      When you hopped out of your seat shouting, “Bingo!” you forgot to read the rest:
      ” It will also likely finish with less ice than any year before 2007. That’s climate. In fact, every year 2007 to present has had less ice than any year before 2007. That’s climate with some confidence.”
      Illustrated pretty clearly here:

      Maybe the termites are eating it.

    • Thanks for the data. So you do realize we know more than the satellites have to say.

      a) The 3+ meter average was for the whole Arctic (end of summer)
      b) It includes the multiyear ice, which can be markedly thicker than new (first year) ice.

      It’s also the case that there’s a lot less multiyear ice than there used to be, which is part of the thinning. While the annual maximum is declining, it is declining much more slowly than the minimum. So, while at maximum it used to be about half the pack was multiyear ice (over 7 million km^2), it’s now only about a third (average 2007-2013 is only 4.7 million km^2)

      Thing is, of course, don’t take my word for it. See that Rothrock et al. paper I mentioned earlier (it’s publicly available now), see in more detail how they arrived at their answers. Then follow up with the work that’s been done in the last 15 years (which will cite this paper, and google scholar is good about telling you where a paper has been cited).

      Surprises happen, that’s why I like to read the original papers and talk to the scientists who did the work. Or at least for the scientists who did it to be unmuzzled and allowed to answer questions about their science from the media.

    • So you’d agree, then, that you should be able to get answers from the honest scientists you have and are paying for in Canada rather than have to rely on those dishonest folks in the US?

    • When can we expect one of these conspiracy kooks to publish their findings in the scientific literature?
      Or are the journals part of the conspiracy?

  18. I’m over on twitter as @rgrumbine I’ve also posted about sea ice on my blog, moregrumbinescience.blogspot.com (a regular topic, see the tag ‘sea ice’ for a collection). On topic questions and comments are welcome.

    For the record, by the way, I’ve never worn a lab coat.

  19. Thank-you for your thorough article. It has really helped me understand the government’s position on this issue. I was somewhat confused as to why they were doing this, and I believe the positions you have outlined here might well be in line with the government’s thinking. It is coherent and has a logic to it.

    It is however, anti-democratic thinking, and is a paternalistic point of view. Let me explain.

    The first clue comes early on in your statement, where you say that for government scientists to “speak out publicly against government policy is, by the current definition, fundamentally at odds with the role of a public servant in our democracy”.

    This statement and some that follow are based on the belief that people working for the government are incapable of separating their personal political opinions form their work. If this were true, almost nobody would be able to work for government, as the political parties change from time to time. The opposite is true; being able to separate your politics from the job is fundamental to the role of a public servant.

    Then you state, “allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions . . . turns the relationship between the bureaucracy and their democratically elected masters on its head”.

    There is a lot to unpack here, but the premise in here is that speech is power. That speaking one’s mind is an affront to those in power. Firstly, in a democracy there should be a lot of voices saying all kinds of things. This is healthy in a democracy. Secondly, it presumes that those in power are incapable of defending their positions, and are too weak to do anything about it. If you have smart people in power, they can defend themselves with words, and if they are “in power” then they have power.

    I would also turn your statement on it’s head by saying that allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions is what democracies do.

    Then in your “caricature” you state, “evidence would all be accurate, but it would be one-sided: the article in the newspaper would show you all of the costs of the policy and none of the benefits.”

    This comes with assumption that the newspapers are not balanced, and would not show both sides of the story. While this might be true or false, but it is a problem with the state of our media. Trying to fix this problem by controlling what scientist say takes away a group of people’s freedom of speech to counter for a completely different problem, and the trade off is unjust.

    It also, as in some of the previous comments, presumes that power can not defend it self with words or logic. I would submit to you that democratic power should always have to defend it’s actions to the people.

    You state, “no one would ask a Statistics Canada official what government should do to combat youth unemployment”, but my rebuttal to this is obvious, if admittedly simplistic. Everyone should be asked what government should do to combat youth unemployment, even Statistics Canada officials.

    Your argument seems to be summarized by your stating, and I paraphrase; we must increase the quality of information available to the general public without skewing the policy process. This is a perfect admission that the position is to keep the public out of the affairs of the nation.

    Only giving people information that doesn’t “skew” public policy the opposite of what a democracy should do. It is exactly the right thing to do in a authoritarian state, for all the same reasons you’ve outlined in your article.

    I would like again to thank-you for explaining what might be the thinking behind the government’s actions which are seemingly counter to democratic governance, and understanding that it is simply based on authoritarian principals.

  20. What BS. Of course “those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence” but when politicians get to make up the “evidence”, the people who DO have evidence have a duty to expose the lies.

    You want us to protect the integrity of the civil service, then start by preventing politicians from interfering with the civil service, which is supposed to be administering the nation, not primarily implementing partisan policy.

    And Environment Canada is NOT a “policy department”. Every department does have policy considerations, but it’s a science department in the same way as Fisheries and Oceans. They run the weather service!

  21. As a public servant in Canada with a role of providing technical expertise to inform decisions of the (separate) policy department in my ministry, I understand my role is to provide “fearless advice and loyal implementation.” Leach reminds us that reasons for muzzling are legitimate if they are consistent with the principle of loyal implementation. Yet he misses the mark on what the actual problem may be with muzzling: the “fearless advice” part.

    A notable case of the government’s muzzling was with the handling of the long-form census. The chief statistician (a public servant) resigned not because he disagreed with the government’s lawful decision to make the mandatory long-form a voluntary survey. The public servant resigned because the government undermined the advice that the public service provided; the government did not want Canadians to know the advice about the low quality of the (more expensive) survey relative to the census. Was the census case an isolated incident? What scientific evidence did the government consider when it made its decisions about changes to the Fisheries Act? What advice was solicited from economists when it attacked the idea of lowering income taxes in favour of a carbon tax? Even if they arrived at the ‘right’ decisions, it seems the process undermined the role of evidence and the bureaucracy’s fearless advice.

    The problem is not that government researchers in the public service want to skew policy. At least, Leach has presented no evidence of that being any more of a problem today than it has ever been. The concern is that elected representatives of the government are increasingly wanting to skew the “fearless advice,” that they don’t want the public to hear the advice, and that the elected representatives themselves don’t want to hear the advice. Disregarding the advice of the public service is fine; undermining the integrity of that advice is not.

  22. Ah, now I see. Curtesy of the Chronicle Hearald (Request to interview federal scientist sparks 110 pages of government emails), the muzzling is a jobs program — to hire people to prevent Canadian scientists from speaking to Canadian media (staff up 15% when numbers of scientists are … not). 110 pages of emails to prevent a Canadian scientist from speaking about that highly political topic — rock snot.