A word of advice for newly un-muzzled federal scientists

If government science becomes a political football, ministers’ demand for science advice, and the need for government scientists, will decline.


 
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Scientists rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, September 16, 2013 as Canadian scientists and their supporters hold demonstrations across the country, calling on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling its scientists.  Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Scientists rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, September 16, 2013 as Canadian scientists and their supporters hold demonstrations across the country, calling on the federal government to stop cutting scientific research and muzzling its scientists. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

One of the many commitments of the new federal government is that federal government scientists will be “un-muzzled,” i.e., free to talk to the media about their research. The commitment comes as a predictable response to the heavy-handed communications practices of their predecessors. In itself, “un-muzzling” federal scientists makes a great headline—easy to communicate and understand. But underneath it lies a complicated issue: the tension between government scientists’ natural desire to discuss their research and their ethical duty as public servants to support whatever government voters elect. Within this tension lies a danger for government scientists that may not be fully appreciated.

To understand the tension, it’s useful to remember one of the stated “values and ethics” of federal public servants: the duty to “loyally carry out the lawful decisions of their leaders, and support ministers in their accountability to Parliament and Canadians.” A short-hand version of this ethical value is: “fearless advice and loyal implementation.” In other words, non-partisan, professional public servants must give their best advice to ministers, then loyally support the lawful decisions of the democratically elected government, regardless of their personal views. If they find it impossible to support the government, they can resign and make the reasons for their resignation public. Such resignations are rare, but they happen often enough to remind us of both the ethical duty and the integrity of public servants.

The advice that ministers consider in making decisions comes in many forms. Scientific, economic, social, legal and political considerations all may be relevant. Voters entrust ministers, not unelected public servants, with the responsibility of weighing the various factors and coming to a decision. Ministers need to be ready to defend their decisions and actions before Parliament and the public. Thus, when ministers make decisions, scientific evidence is but one of the things they may need to consider.

Herein lies the danger for government scientists. As public servants, government scientists need to provide ministers with the best scientific evidence regarding the policy issues and, at the same time, loyally implement whatever lawful decisions ministers take. Anything government scientists say that can be interpreted as criticism of a government decision is contrary to their ethical duty as public servants. If scientists write or say things publicly that can be interpreted as critical of a lawful government’s decisions, they should be prepared to resign their positions in the public service.

Related: When civil servants fail to appear non-partisan

A common and natural issue that arises whenever journalists talk to government scientists is whether a minister’s decisions are consistent with scientific evidence. The other considerations that come into play are often ignored. Thus, it is a common occurrence in media interviews for government scientists to find themselves facing a difficult question: Are the government’s decisions consistent with your scientific work?

Can this tension be managed? Yes, but only with care and restraint. Clearly, government scientists should continue to make their work publicly available by publishing it in scholarly journals and discussing it in scientific conferences. When speaking with journalists, they should be cautious and avoid talking about policy issues that are the prerogative of the minister. For their part, journalists should respect the ethical duty of government scientists to support the government and avoid putting them in apparent conflict.

Finding the right balance in the new world of un-muzzled scientists in government will not be easy. Ultimately, if government science becomes a political football, ministers’ demand for science advice, and the need for government scientists, will decline. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the desire to “un-muzzle” government scientists ended up leading to less scientific evidence in government decision-making?

Paul Boothe is Professor and Director of the Lawrence Centre for Policy and Management at Western’s Ivey Business School. He is a former federal and provincial deputy minister.


 

A word of advice for newly un-muzzled federal scientists

  1. And the second story warning civil servants that they were better off with their mouths taped shut, hands tied behind their back under a Harper government.

  2. “…a complicated issue: the tension between government scientists’ natural desire to discuss their research and their ethical duty as public servants to support whatever government voters elect.”

    Boothe downgrades a scientist’s ethical duty to seek out and communicate the facts to a “natural desire” to talk about their findings, and thereby makes their duty to do what their bosses tell them a higher calling. As he was a deputy minister, which is a political appointment, and a professor of the non-science of business, he clearly has no understanding of what drives scientists.

  3. I don’t know about those “Muzzled Scientist” but when every time I got hired on by a company I had to sign a Confidently Agreement not to disclose THEIR Secrets, But I guess it’s different for the Whiners in the public service……

    • Joefrmedm: yes, of course it’s different for the public service, because they serve the PUBLIC. When you work for a PRIVATE company they can keep their PRIVATE secrets, but when you work for the taxpayer then the taxpayer is entitled to know your results.

      That’s not just still true when those results don’t support government policy, it’s *especially* true then.

      And it has nothing to do with your obvious hatred of the hundreds of thousands of taxpaying Canadians who work in the public service, or with them being “winners”. It has to do with you, and with me, and with OUR right to know what OUR taxes are paying for.

  4. Government scientists have never demanded the freedom to criticise policy decisions. What they ask for is to be able to tell the public the scientific evidence and the results of their research, even if that scientific evidence or research contradicts policy decisions. The distinction in important and goes to the heart of science: to ask questions of Nature (through experiments and observations) and then report how Nature answers those questions irrespective of how we “want” Nature to answer. If a political decision runs counter to the scientific evidence then it is not the role of a government scientist to comment on this in public although is should be the responsibility of the politician to clearly explain why the decision contradicts the scientific evidence.

    • Komarade Dumberdore what don’t you understand it was not THEIRS to begin with……..

  5. This is the problem: “the tension between government scientists’ natural desire to discuss their research and their ethical duty as public servants to support whatever government voters elect. ”

    Why should there be tension? Their job is to do necessary research, to provide us with the answers we need to enact good policy. Their job is not to produce biased research that supports whatever policies the elected government wants, or to hide or lie about results that contradict government policy.

    They are PUBLIC servants, not government servants.

    • “Their job is to do necessary research, to provide us with the answers we need to enact good policy. Their job is not to produce biased research that supports whatever policies the elected government wants, or to hide or lie about results that contradict government policy.”

      There has never been any suggestion they were ordered to produce biased research or hide or lie about their results. What caused them – and you – consternation was the mild curtailment that followed their attempts – egged on by a biased press – to criticize government policy in their area of research expertise. If they perceive their calling to be slagging the government about something they know a lot about, they should do the honourable thing, which is quit the civil service and start shopping their resumes to Macleans, the Globe, etc.

  6. Good piece.  The situation, as it has always been,  is nicely summarized in your second last paragraph, to wit ” Clearly, government scientists should continue to make their work publicly available by publishing it in scholarly journals and discussing it in scientific conferences. When speaking with journalists, they should be cautious and avoid talking about policy issues that are the prerogative of the minister.”  The corollory to this is that journalists need to avoid the policy implication query and should be professional enough to realize that 99.9% of the time there isn’t one and admit they are looking for the next headline based on some poor scientist’s ego getting the better of him/her. One hundred percent of unions and a disturbing number of scientists don’t now and never have understood the difference between communicating their scientific results and the impact of those individual results on departmental policy. The new PM and his ministers do not recognize that scientists by their very nature lean towards self-centeredness and are extremely short-sighted when it comes to their belief about the overall impact of their work.  No one has reminded or discussed with scientists the `fist hole in a bucket of water`relationship.  Specifically, “stick your fist in a bucket of water, then take it out, the size of the hole you left in the water is the size of the impact you’ll leave on society (in this case departmental policy) when you’re gone”. The likes of Copernicus, Paracelsus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Priestly, Gauss, Pasteur, Ohm, Henry, Krebs, Nobel, Einstein, Turing, Hawking, Watson, Crick, Sanger etc., etc., etc. fall outside this truism, they have left their metaphorical `fist hole` behind. 

  7. Mr. Boothe seems to think that Harper’s muzzling of scientists installed a new “normal” for Canadians. It DID NOT.

    This isn’t a “new era” of unmuzzled scientists, it’s a return to what existed before Harper came to power. It is neither new, nor uncertain. What was new was a government which went out of its way to suppress information and replace it with state-sponsored propaganda.

    Apparently Mr. Boothe is more fond of propaganda than he is of facts and evidence. If he was so worried about “science becoming a political football”, then why wasn’t he speaking out against that very act when Harper was engaging in it? Oh wait … he was working _FOR_ Harper at the time.

  8. We shall see how long this “un-muzzled”ness goes on, once scientists on government payroll (why are there so many?) start making statements inconsistent with government policy. Surely our liberal friends aren’t assuming that All Science is Liberal so this couldn’t possibly happen.

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