Un-muzzle the scientists?: Critics say "Yes, please" - Macleans.ca

Un-muzzle the scientists?: Critics say “Yes, please”

Government scientists should be free to speak directly, and through journalists, say critics. Andrew Leach responds.

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Chris Wattie/Reuters
Chris Wattie/Reuters

Earlier this week University of Alberta professor Andrew Leach wrote an article for Macleans.ca titled Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast. Because of the intense interest in the story, we’ve assembled responses from three critics who took issue with Leach’s argument, along with a new post from Leach in which he responds to the critics.

Michael Rennie at the University of Manitoba and a former research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Ted Hsu, the Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands

Scott Findlay, associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa

Andrew Leach responds


Michael Rennie is an adjunct professor at the University of Manitoba and a former research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada at the Experimental Lakes Area. His post originally appeared here.

Never one to shy away from being provocative, Andrew Leach wrote an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine about why we as a society should be okay with our federal government being in control of the messaging of the research performed by its public servant scientists. In it, he envisions government scientists waving the flag of their evidence-based discoveries against all other considerations for informing policy, because, surely, they must think this is the only thing worth considering.

Perhaps to suit the tone of the article, Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely. To be fair, his main premise is: should government researchers be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers?

In many ways, this point is moot from the start. See the Values and Ethics code we all signed when we started our jobs with the federal public service. Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government. To do so would be grounds for dismissal. But why not let them talk about their studies and results, without the policy-related questions? People do it all the time in interviews, including academics- just listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC- few scientists are tromping out the “what we should be doing”, the vast majority are just really excited about the work they’ve done. E.g., state the facts, and conclusions, in an unbiased fashion, as we’d all like to do, and have the capacity to inform the public about our science. Over twitter, Andrew suggests that having their papers read by other scientists should be enough, but even he can appreciate the added buzz that goes along with articles when it ends up in the public discussion- he writes for Maclean’s, after all!
Returning to Andrew’s point in the article, to suggest that scientists think that their evidence should be considered above all else with regards to forming public policy (or, as Andrew puts it, “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”),
pays little credit to the intelligent folks that are employed as government scientists. Having recently been one, we are all keenly aware of all the other issues at play in shaping good public policy, and that the scientific evidence under consideration (be it health impacts, environmental impacts, discoveries of other scientific importance) is only one part of the equation. An article that I’ve pointed to many times here by Jake Rice, Senior Scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, would seem to demonstrate that we are keenly aware of the nature of science and scientific evidence in informing public policy, and the need to keep that science free of bias such that it receives proper weighting at the policy table. That is NOT to say that it’s the only thing to consider, but when folks look back 30 years later on the cod stocks of Newfoundland, we can clearly evaluate what happens when policy makers place emphasis on short-term economic gains in the face of longer-term ecological (and ultimately, economic) stability.

In many ways, NOT letting government scientists do the talking is backfiring for the government, and badly. My strategy before leaving the public service was to make sure that I had university co-authors on any paper I published, to make sure that someone would be able to discuss the results. However, as Andrew pointed out in his article, university researchers are not as bound as the government’s own scientists with regards to what they can say. Take, for example, the recent PR disaster facing Environment Canada and NRC over John Smol, and the government research paper that he was involved in. Do you think that, were the lead government scientists permitted to discuss their research, that they would have had the same messaging as Smol? No way. Government scientists are bound by their Values and Ethics code of conduct, and are repeatedly reminded of it. Give them a chance to show that they know how to conduct good science, and can communicate it, too, without getting fired or going through the 7 circles of administrivia to get permission to talk about it.

As Andrew says, “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.” Here here. So why inflame the discussion by suggesting that the issue of muzzling is about something that it’s not?

I also agree with Andrew that there is a strong role for Government science, both with regards to the science one can do under it (as opposed to under academic science), and with the spot it gives you at the table when it comes to forming policy- that’s outlined in an early post over here. Ironically, though, since internal science capacity is so strapped with all the recent cuts to federal research departments, it’s groups like the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society that are in talks with the government now, keen to fill the holes that have been left. It seems that when you kick the scientists out of government, they get jobs in academia, and still try to give you the advice you employed them for in the first place.

And PS, Andrew, not all of us wear lab coats; something I am sure he is keenly aware of being a colleague of David Schindler. I tried my best to find the stereotype of economists, but I hate to say they weren’t terribly flattering. Of course, I don’t suggest nor have any reason to believe that these apply to Andrew, but that’s what you get with stereotypes in public writing. Andrew is a great writer, and has a lot of insightful things to say in his articles, but I feel like this one misses the mark entirely.


Ted Hsu is the Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands and the science and technology critic for the party. He first published this response to Leach’s post on his blog.

I’ve been concerned with the muzzling of scientists since I first became a member of Parliament. I’ve been pleased to speak at rallies, write opinion pieces and advocate for science and science funding as the Liberal party’s critic for science and technology. I have followed the muzzling issue closely, speaking with academics, public servants and former colleagues—many of whom are scientists.

I therefore read Andrew Leach’s recent Maclean’s article “Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast” with interest.

Unfortunately, it seems that Dr. Leach has misunderstood how the government is muzzling our scientists. Leach writes that there is a problem with “allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions,” and he would be right, if this were what was happening.

Instead, we have stories like that of Kristi Miller, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who published an article about sockeye salmon in the prestigious journal Science and was then told by officials that she was forbidden from speaking to the media about her groundbreaking findings. There’s also Scott Dallimore, a geologist from Natural Resources, who published an article in Nature about a massive flood 13,000 years ago, who was also prohibited from speaking publicly about his research. Neither of these scientists was commenting on public policy, they were simply trying to explain their research to a broader audience. These are experts in their fields, publishing in internationally renowned journals, and we should be applauding their work rather than trying to limit it to a small audience.

Dr. Leach also suggests that there are two main arguments in favour of un-muzzling scientists. First, he says, is the notion that research that is publicly funded should be available to the public. I would go further and say that research, especially policy-relevant research, should be rendered accessible to the public so that the public can properly understand and evaluate it. As an opposition member of Parliament, my role is to understand government policy decisions. If the basis for making policy decisions—the evidence—is difficult to access, I can’t do my job.

Dr. Leach sees the notion that the government is “hiding” evidence that undermines its agenda as the second argument in favour of un-muzzling scientists. But, again, this implies that scientists want to speak out on policy, instead of simply explaining their research as clearly as possible. The most high-profile case of a public servant not speaking against a government policy is the former chief statistician, Munir Sheikh, who resigned after former industry minister Tony Clement claimed that Statistics Canada had recommended cancelling the long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey. But, as Alex Himmlefarb notes, “This was not a public servant substituting his own judgment for that of the government or in any way being disloyal… in the traditions of public service, Munir was and continues to be publicly silent about his advice… his was about the integrity of Statistics Canada and of the public service. The decision to replace the long-form census with a voluntary version put the chief statistician in a difficult position. The way the decision was handled put him in an impossible position.”

Dr. Leach’s piece does provoke a good question: when can it be fairly claimed that a policy is based on the best available science? As he points out, a policy is never just based on science because all sorts of other cost and benefit considerations necessarily come into play when a policy decision is made. A policy is based on the best available science if all the relevant scientific knowledge is clearly and objectively presented to and understood by policy-makers. Who are the policy-makers? Surely the general public and their elected representatives, mostly non-scientists, should be included. That is precisely why government scientists should be allowed to speak freely about their research to the public. They should be free to speak directly, and through journalists.

“Muzzling scientists” epitomizes the way that Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government has treated science for the common good. It goes far beyond preventing government scientists from speaking freely about their research. It describes an ideology resulting in government cutbacks to scientific research which jeopardize our safety, our environment and our economy. It describes the damage done to Canada’s reputation on the world stage.

I disagree with Leach’s premises and conclusions, though we do agree on one point: this should be an important issue for Canadians when they go to the polls to elect the next government.

 


Scott Findlay is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Ottawa and co-founder of Evidence for Democracy, a national non-partisan organization that advocates for evidence-informed decision-making by governments.

While I find much to agree with in Andrew Leach’s thoughtful piece, it leaves readers with several misimpressions.

Dr. Leach asserts that those advocating for the unmuzzling of government scientists believe that “when senior public servants or elected officials take a decision with which the scientists in the room do not agree, these scientists should … because they are on the side of the evidence, be free to speak up and to contest that decision in the public arena.” Not so. As Dr. Leach notes, there are a several compelling arguments as to why, in general, government scientists (of all stripes, not just natural scientists) should not be publicly critical of government policy.

Nor do unmuzzlers believe that government scientists should have a monopoly on evidence. Any such monopoly would not only be unscientific, but palpably inconsistent with the objective of an informed public.

Unmuzzlers do indeed understand that there are two different types of questions: questions of fact (“is” questions) and questions of value (“ought” questions). Many policy decisions are of the “ought” variety, whereas science is concerned with questions of the “is” type. And although scientists (government or otherwise) may be in a privileged position with respect to the latter, that privilege largely disappears on questions of value.

What then is our position? First, that as government science is paid for by Canadians, Canadians should be informed about it by those who have actually done it unless there are compelling reasons for believing that doing so is not in the public interest. Please note: the public interest – not political interest.

Second, given the gulf between “ought” and “is”, governments may decide – legitimately – to make policy decisions that are inconsistent with the weight of scientific evidence. But in keeping with basic principles of transparency and accountability, they should ensure that Canadians know that this is the case.

In particular, they should not misrepresent the state of scientific evidence. In a recent CBC interview on the subject of medicinal heroin, Health Minister Rona Ambrose asserted categorically that “there is no scientific evidence that this is a safe treatment”. She is mistaken – badly so. In a recent report, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) concluded “…Over the past 15 years, six RCTs have been conducted involving more than 1,500 patients, and they provide strong evidence, both individually and collectively, in support of the efficacy of treatment with fully supervised self-administered injectable heroin…” So either the Minister’s superlative (but hitherto unrecognized) scientific abilities have enabled her alone to detect fundamental flaws in the EMCDDA evidence, or she is woefully uniformed, or she has deliberately misrepresented the scientific evidence to Canadians.

Dr. Leach is in favour of unmuzzling scientists to increase the quality of information available to decision-makers and the public, but expresses concern about unmuzzling that “skews the policy process”. If by “skews the policy process”, Dr. Leach means “influences policy decisions”, unmuzzlers would find this perplexing. If scientific evidence doesn’t influence policy decisions, then one is, by definition, engaged in (scientific) evidence-free decision-making. And if scientific information presented by unmuzzled scientists prompts Canadians to question government policy, why is this undesirable? The resulting scientific heat may raise a sweat on some political brows, but perhaps a day at the scientific spa is just what the doctor ordered.

 


Andrew Leach is a business professor at the University of Alberta and a regular contributor at Maclean’s

Earlier this week, I wrote a post on the so-called muzzling of scientists in the federal government. Responses including myriad tweets, emails, phone calls, and blog posts from formerly-muzzled scientist Dr. Michael Rennie, from Member of Parliament and Liberal science and technology critic Ted Hsu, from Evidence 4 Democracy, and others followed. In most cases, the critical responses cited important, related issues and were not directly about the issues raised in the original post. There were four common critical points with which I did not agree: that I missed the real issue, that I created a fake issue, that as an academic I failed to defend academic freedom, and that I was wrong to make a big deal about the lab coats.

You missed the/a more important/my point

The most common critical responses to the post were that I had avoided the real question at hand or mis-understood what was meant by the muzzling of scientists. In his blog, Ted Hsu writes that:

Unfortunately, it seems that Leach has misunderstood how the government is muzzling our scientists. Leach writes that there is a problem with “allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions,” and he would be right, if this were what was happening.

and, similarly, Dr. Rennie writes that:

Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely.

In an email, University of Ottawa Professor David Bryce said that:

The “key question”, which you formulate, is probably not the appropriate one: you suggest that scientists want to “to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence”. While that is sometimes the case, the more problematic issue is the more routine communication of results to peers in the scientific community and to the public.”

It’s true that a lot of coverage has focussed on government scientists being unavailable to the media to discuss the results of scientific papers, but the list of topics discussed under the heading of the muzzling of scientists is broad. Sources of muzzling are said to include changes to program funding such as that for the Experimental Lakes Area, media relations and media access to experts, publication of scientific papers, and a host of other issues. Limits on communication is but one of four main fronts in the War on Science thesis advanced in Chris Turner’s latest book. CBC’s The Fifth Estate focussed a lot more on program and job cuts than on media access. In this list of Top 10 quotes from muzzled scientists by Mike DeSouza, 7 out of 10 are clearly comments on government policies, the 8th states that, “I am sure that I did not sign a confidentiality agreement designed to protect elected officials from minor embarrassment or surprise,” while another complains about being, “tasked with work that we ethically do not agree with and must support.” Two objections to the loyal implementation of government policies make the top 10, but not a single lament with respect to not seeing discussion of their paper in the Toronto Star or the Guelph Mercury?

The discussion of muzzled science includes a lot of discussions of government policy and the role of government scientists in pointing out the flaws with it, although that may not be the primary focus of the debate for many people. Perhaps, in hindsight, I could have chosen words like, “the area of this debate which most interests me.”

This isn’t a real issue – it’s a red herring

Some went a little further suggesting that, in addition to avoiding the real issue, I created a non-issue (some used the term straw man or red herring), in focussing on scientists who might want to intervene in policy decisions. Again, Dr. Rennie states that:

Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada Big Chill survey suggests this is potentially important, although that’s open to interpretation. They asked Canadian government scientists, and found that if, “faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department.” Everything here is subjective, from what constitutes harm to the environment to whether the issue is that a scientist might not want to speak out against government policy, as my muzzled critic suggests, but would do so if the opportunity were afforded. I maintain that we should not expect one class of civil servant to act as an Officer of Parliament would, holding the government to account. It’s not their role. Maybe that’s not what anyone expects, and if so, that’s fine by me. George Monbiot seems to have a different view as to the role of science in general, whether government or otherwise. Another recent piece by Mike DeSouza, quoted here by Carrol Linnitt, complained that, as part of the muzzling of scientists, Environment Canada scientists had been directed not to answer questions about Environment Canada’s role and actions in the oil sands region. “If asked questions of this nature, the scientists were told in the script to say: ‘I am a scientist. I’m not in a position to answer that question but I’d be happy to refer you to an appropriate spokesperson.'” Sounds like a reasonable instruction to me. Is it reasonable to have government minders intervene at conferences to make sure scientists follow these instructions? For what it’s worth, I don’t think so.

As an academic, you should defend academic freedom.

Some commenters, in particular B.C. businessperson Sandy Garossino and climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, suggested that it was wrong to ignore the problem as defined by the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Science Writers Association, Nature, the New York Times, and other outlets. In his email, Professor Bryce stated that, “although government scientists are public servants, they are also scientists and international science works in a particular way, with conferences, communications, publishing, etc. That sort of bread-and-butter of the scientific endeavour is a clear example of the type of communications which should not be ‘muzzled’.” Great. Shifting research to arms-length institutions and universities offers a potential path to deal with the objections identified by the Royal Society and others, and for a measure of academic freedom to exist within government research when it does not have direct policy implications.

The Science Writers reference new guidelines at the NOAA, and Nature states that, “NOAA and NSF-funded scientists and staff are free to speak to journalists without first seeking the approval of a public-affairs officer.” Similarly, the Royal Society references guidelines in the U.S. and the U.K. which allow scientists to freely speak about their work, regardless of their employ in government or not. That’s great, and part of why greater use of arms-length government agencies for scientific research makes sense. However, neither the NOAA nor especially the NSF is a reasonable comparable to Environment Canada, nor any Canadian line department or central agency. A better comparable would be the Environmental Protection Agency which, like Environment Canada, routes contacts with their experts through a media relations office and ensures that its experts, when speaking on behalf of the agency, comment only on results and do not appear to directly or indirectly influence policy decisions. Similar directives from Environment Canada were compared to Soviet Russia in this piece. In addition to the use of arms-length agencies, shifting more bread-and-butter research to universities via government granting agencies could also enhance scientific freedom. Research would then come under NSERC or SSHRC guidelines which, in fact, encourage knowledge mobilization through interaction with media, as is the case with the NSF guidelines mentioned by Nature. Comparing apples to apples is important.

The Royal Society report goes too far in its claims that, “restrictions fly in the face of the government’s own cabinet policy of basing policy decisions on the best science available.” The two examples they cite were, after all, cases where papers had been published by government scientists in top scientific journals. To my knowledge, in no way were these scientists restricted from discussing these findings with government officials. There is an issue with respect to this information being made available to the opposition—in his piece, Ted Hsu says that scientists should be free to speak because, “if the basis for making policy decisions—the evidence—is difficult to access, I can’t do my job.” But, the evidence was made available, in published papers in top scientific journals. Is it that the articles for which the scientists were going to be interviewed were going to draw links between the work and government policies, thus making Ted Hsu’s job easier? Did Ted Hsu attempt to arrange for private briefings with these scientists? Were scientists prevented from attending such a briefing or prevented from appearing at or answering questions in Parliamentary Committee?

Further, as I stated in my piece, there would be significant evidence over-and-above the work of scientists published in peer-reviewed journals which would inform policy decisions. If we’re going to have an evidence-based discussion of policies, having only full and open comment on the science evidence alone would seem to paint only a partial picture of most decisions.

What is it with you and the lab coats?

The lab coat references matter because economists and many other researchers don’t wear them and so the symbolism excludes a lot of people doing scientific research in federal government departments. Much of this non-lab-coat research is disseminated through peer-reviewed journals. Any change in policy with respect to the dissemination of research undertaken in federal government departments will have to determine what counts as research and who gets unmuzzled—the policy will draw a line somewhere and where that line is drawn will matter. Perhaps that line won’t be lab-coat-based, but this affects a lot of researchers, not just the natural scientists.

What’s next?

Ted Hsu ends his piece saying that he agrees that this is an important issue for discussion. The PIPSC survey found that, “while most (98%) believe science findings should be shared with the public, 61% believe they should be shared with some restrictions in some cases, and only 37% believe they should be shared without restrictions.” But, when are those restrictions okay, what controls should and should not be imposed and from whom should the muzzle be removed? Perhaps we need less complaining about muzzles and more proposals of workable solutions.