Federal scientists should be allowed to speak up

Interesting story from Postmedia’s Margaret Munro this morning on how the Conservatives have moved to tighten control on what scientists in the federal government’s employ can say to reporters. She offers the comical example of how the new rules, which apparently went into force last March for Natural Resources Canada researchers, limited one scientist’s ability to chat with the media about floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

Of course, the government’s aim is to stop scientists from freely providing expert opinion on more topical subjects, such the potential for catastrophic flooding as a result of climate change in this century. Like many reporters, I’ve run into problems when I try to tap the expertise of federal researchers.

For instance, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a $5-million study into the feasibility of creating an Arctic marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound last year, I tried to do a few quick interviews with federal biologists who study the sound’s abundant sea birds. But the bird guys told me they were required to go through an approvals process that would have prevented them from talking to me on the record quickly enough to meet my deadline for posting an item on the subject on this website that same day.

Largely as a result of being unable to dredge up explosive quotes about Lancaster Sound’s thick-billed murres and provocative insights into its black-legged kitiwakes, I ended up focusing more closely than I otherwise would have on what Prentice said at his new conference… about his position on global warming.

I guess it’s possible one of the bird scientists I called up might have said something about shrinking Arctic sea ice that the government wouldn’t have appreciated. But so what? Scientists should be able to talk about their work, although the politicians in charge can reasonably ask that they not act as random, freelance critics of legislation and policy.

Here’s what I think makes sense. Scientists employed by the federal government should be allowed to talk whenever they like about their own research, provided their findings have been published in recognized, peer-reviewed journals. They should be required to point out to journalists that their comments don’t represent government policy.

They shouldn’t comment on topics outside their established areas of expertise. The test should be whether they have published those academic papers. Would this lead to only sage comments emanating from government scientists? I’m afraid not. Published scientists sometimes turn out to be outright flakes. Often the broad policy ideas they dream up based on their narrow fields of study are dubious. But that’s hardly a justification for muzzling them.

In my experience, most scientists, in federal agencies and elsewhere, aren’t gifted communicators. The government should lighten up. These are not firebrands, they’re eggheads. It might even help heal the damage done by the Conservatives’ bungled scrapping of the long-form census to announce, sometime soon, an easing of restrictions on when and how federal experts can speak freely.




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Federal scientists should be allowed to speak up

  1. Harper, not quite as controlling as the regime in Iran, but a little more than communist China.

  2. It might even help heal the damage done by the Conservatives' bungled scrapping of the long-form census to announce, sometime soon, an easing of restrictions on when and how federal experts can speak freely.

    Speaking for myself: fat chance of that.

    That the Conservatives deign to let the experts speak about that which they research in no way makes up for their complete and utter ignorance of what it is those experts speak about.

  3. You say the flood happened 13,000 years ago? That's impossible, according to most conservatives, the earth is only 6000 years old. Stupid scientists, always contradicting the Bible.

    • At least put a big "C' on that.

      Even then, it's nowhere near half.

      • Fewer than half of Conservative party members believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?

        Whew! What a relief!

        • Don't forget to vote for this years Golden Crocoduck.
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjXx8Ay3UlM

          Not to brag, but I've voted for the winner both years this has been going. Hovind the first year, Comfort the second.

          This year pickings are a little slimmer. Truthgroup wins over Crone by a nose (and a Hovind).

    • So true,so true.
      now the theme here is that federal scientists are muzzled BUT what does the far right media say about the thousands of scientists that believe man is contributing to global warming and the far right want them censured but the 7 scientists
      and 1 non-meteorologist weather channel owner should be the ones we listen to?
      Yeah and no thank you especially after someone with the far right used a scientists name saying he changed his mind
      that is until he read that he had changed his mind and demanded the extremist rag remove his name from the non believer list,like I said the non believer list is something like 7 against thousands of those who do believe.
      The far right is VERY selective about the knowledge their blind followers are allowed to have.
      You know,things like Bush paying borrowed money to have Companies outsource jobs,an other good one is the bush debt,the national debt bush DOUBLED!!! Hey another good one,Valerie Plame was correct,CHENEY WAS WRONG,
      VALERIE PLAME AND FRANCE WAS CORRECT but even though I listen to fox every day I have yet to hear about this,
      wouldn't be censoring and muzzling of facts would it?
      Come on,there has never been a president that manipulated people and the office of President and Vice president as well as climbing inside our intelligence agencies to form and manipulate intel for partisan. purposes.
      Now what are you talking about here,you think Obama tried to protect BP? hahahaha,yeah sure,uh-huh.
      Sounds to be as there was a chain of command problem with the field and the press officer, But you guys go ahead and make some big thing out of this,that's what Beck wants you to do and you need to follow him blindly!

  4. It appears that Geddes is advocating that federal employees be allowed some fraction of their charter rights under certain conditions provided they have the correct credentials and documentation. Well, I guess that would be a start.

    • I know you're half joking, but it wouldn't be a breach of charter rights for the government to require it's employees to always toe the government line or to get its comments cleared before speaking.

      it is, however, bad policy.

      • for the government to require it's employees to always toe the government line or to get its comments cleared before speaking.

        If only Paul Martin had thought of that he could have prevented government employees from talking about Adscam and still might have been Prime Minister today.

        • haha, legal proceedings excepted of course.

          • On the not half joking side, there must be a benchmark for how far this can extend. Any legal, HR experts out there?

          • Wiki, for what it's worth:
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiv_Chopra#Federal_

            But that is about whistleblowing. These government scientists are being muzzled from describing the results of their scientific research to the public, when we paid for the research in the first place. There is no justification for it.

          • All "whistleblower" rules/laws/policy aside, an employer can restrict what you say in your capacity as an employee and what you can say about information collected/created/used/disclosed in the course of your employment, even if collected/created by you.

            That is assuming that you have some sort of explicit confidentiality obligation. And an employer cannot change your terms of employment after you become an employee without your consent (though consent can be deemed if you continue accepting cheques for a while after).

            What you say and do outside your employment, in your personal capacity, cannot be restricted. However, in reality, employers often do try to stretch their authority to this. The result for them could well be a lawsuit though that they would likely lose if no confidentiality was breached.

  5. From the Policy Statement section of the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada: "Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility. Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making, and enables the public to assess performance. An open and democratic government implies that all employees have a role in communicating with the public while respecting the constitution and laws of Canada. Public service managers and employees must respect privacy rights, matters before the courts, national security, Cabinet confidences and ministerial responsibility. They serve the public interest best by communicating openly and responsively about policies, programs, services and initiatives they help to administer, while treating sensitive information with the discretion it requires."

    I guess the government is not too big on following its own policies… You can read the whole thing here http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/pol/doc-eng.aspx?id=1231

    • That ppolicy is from 2006. But last spring they apparently tightened the screws radically on all civil servants, not just the scientists:

      "…"The existence of this draconian, Orwellian, unprecedented prerequisite to clear any and all public statements that might be picked up by the media reflects, in my view, a level of micromanagement in the public service, a lack of confidence, trust and respect, and a commitment to total control of the message the likes of which has never been seen before," said one civil servant…"
      http://www.hilltimes.com/page/view/control-04-26-

      • Yes, it is from 2006. But it is still in effect today. Some policies public servants work with have been in place for many more years than that.

        The funny thing about this policy is that it gives a lot of leeway for the government to define what constitutes the "political" or "policy" domain. So they can put in place the system you refer to in your post and still say that they respect the policy.

        I don't think this total control was what the drafters of the policy had in mind, of course, but such is the world of government that you can completely betray in actions what you promise to do in writing.

    • To use your own post;
      ""Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility. "

      Now please notice this does not say to make conclusions and give the public you OPINION does it?
      No it doesn't but go ahead and stay with the usual far right media practice of NON journalistic integrity and rather then facts use opinion favorable to your cause.

    • You've gotta wonder—isn't this work funded publicly? What right does anyone have to supress it, when the people of Canada paid for it????

  6. Can somebody call Stephen Harper c. 2004? He's gonna be really mad at the lack of transparency, and it will furhter underline the accountability a conservative government will bring to the table should they be elected.

    • Opposition-era Stephen Harper is buried so deep no one will ever find him.

  7. Actually, that "flooding" 13,000 years ago was an enormously significant climate event – it caused global temperatures to plummet for a period of more than a thousand years. The glacial waters of Lake Agassiz, which covered most of what is now the Province of Manitoba, suddenly drained into the Arctic Ocean. Agassiz refilled and then drained again 8,500 years ago, with similar cooling effects:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glacial_Lake_Agassiz

    Having said this, I think the government's muzzling of our scientists is execrable.

  8. There's a lot of muzzling going on.

    The new agency for governing health care on P.E.I. has upset doctors with a proposed set of bylaws, including a measure that would allow the agency to discipline doctors for speaking out.

  9. Bennji mentions Iran and China. I believe the model Harper uses is that of North Korea. Not only the muzzles on everyone, now Dear Leader himself continues to eerily ape the behavior of North Korea's leadership:
    "Media barred from questioning PM/ Brad Bird, Oceanside Star/ Published: Thursday, September 09, 2010
    "Did they tell you this is all oyster shells?" Stephen Harper said to the media, <SNIP> Since nobody else said anything, Mr. Harper finished the thought himself. "It is," he said.

  10. Of course, the government's aim is to stop scientists from freely providing expert opinion..

    It's a little weird to me that we can all be so relatively nonchalant about this. i.e. "Well, sure, they don't want experts talking about their fields of expertise and informing the public. Of course that's what they're doing. I mean, D'uh!"

  11. "In my experience, most scientists, in federal agencies and elsewhere, aren't gifted communicators."

    Where I am, sometimes they ask for help. Usually they flip it to their "uber-science" boss who speaks for the body in question. Sometimes, they alert the political side to the info they're sending out as an FYI notice, but they don't tend to take muzzling well.

  12. They used to cut out a scientist's tongue, and then burn him at the stake.

    Today Harper just threatens their job, pension and reputation.

    Has the same effect though.

  13. So, what happens if the Minister's office says "No, you can't talk to reporters about that research that you just got published"?

    More importantly, what happens when some professor (and you know this will happen) says "Oh, really? Well, screw you, try and stop me".

    • It's more subtle though; telling them they need permission to speak to national media, then delaying the permission until after the media's deadline is past. The Bush administration used the exact same tactics against James Hansen, as he wrote in his book and has spoken about quite often.

      • And does our media have the guts to make a big fuss about this?

    • Well, the government will threaten sanctions and the scientist will have to thread very carefully so as not to make pronouncements that would be interpreted as wading into policy issues.

      If the scientist in question escapes disciplinary action by sticking very closely to her research, she'll have to make do with the other consequence of a "screw you" approach: Deputy Ministers are not too fond of people who make their lives difficult, and they stick around long after the government is gone. So our intrepid professor can look forward to a career with very little prospect for advancement or interesting research projects.

  14. The Conservatives would like to pretend that the scientists, who are paid by taxpayers, work for their political party. This is more of the same. They are using our own money and the expertise it affords, against us.

    A disgusting party.

  15. I'm amazed this story isn't getting more play. It's important and serious.

    Not to mention dangerous.

    • They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety (Benjamin Franklin)

  16. "They shouldn't comment on topics outside their established areas of expertise."

    The ARROGANCE of the media. First off, Geddes wants SAME DAY INFO and uses this example by way of exposition that the new laws are restrictive? But secondly, and most importantly, Geddes' attitude about what a Scientist, by virtue of their profession, should be 'allowed' to say is fair ludicrous! This mag has lobbying for free speech, been sanctioned by Parliament for abuse of their own podium (which, by the by, isn't completely 'theirs') and still the arrogance plows on. I guess it's Ok for the likes of Philip Slayton and Eric Hoskins to contribute to MacLeans with their opinions shouting loud alongside their professional expertise, but Scientists 'shouldn't'? Who is John Geddes to make such a pronouncement?

    Visit http://www.publicscience.ca or my unaffiliated twitter page (@publicscienceca) to learn more.

  17. Geddes. I must say…I didn't think this sort of arrogance was in you. I associated it with Wells and Coyne. But I think the stain has spread to you and Potter.

    Tell me. Is it ok for Academics funded from the taxpayer purse to speak their opinions outside their expertise? Guys like Steve Gordon who gets so much play on your podium (for instance)? So why do you think that scientists who get paid for doing research within gov't departments shouldn't enjoy the equivalent freedom of expression in our society? If a Scientist wants to publicly tell me he's pro-choice at the same time that he tells me he's made a discovery in women's health research, I like to have that information Geddes. I like to know the writer because I read critically. You advocate undue censorship. Why?

  18. Oh and Geddes, you think that I take into account publication in Peer Reviewed journals when I assess the validity of scientific research? Well in fact I do, but to a standard that you OBVIOUSLY don't respect. Read up here Geddes: http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Fulltext
    You are talking down to me with this writing. Is that because you're low or because you think I am? It's an information age (need I remind you?) and journalism is right there alongside alot of other writing. The standard of journalism must be kept high.

    You're welcome.
    Karen

  19. At this very moment, Man Kind has the Science and Technology to immediately stop the progression of any known disease!
    To have your vehicle fully operational from the energy (AURA) of the body!
    The dog and cat to keep the home fires burning and there is enough aura produced from Gramps old bones as to run a factory!
    cbc.ca bruce voigt

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