Since 2007, there has been an unprecedented shift in the way our government deals with public science. Government scientists are no longer able to freely communicate their research with the media and the public1. New policies have the potential to suppress science further by making it harder for government scientists to publish their work and collaborate with scientists outside of government.
Informed public debate is the foundation of democracy. Informed means, at the very least, having the scientific information that we have paid for through our tax dollars available for discussion. This means allowing our publicly-funded scientists - whose salaries and research costs we pay - to communicate freely.
The federal government’s position is that no censorship or restriction is occurring. They insist that this is just standard communication management2. Gary Goodyear, Minister of Science and Technology, has stated that the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”3 Government spokespeople have repeatedly said that they value science and that important decisions will be made based on the scientific evidence.
Yet journalists now find that their questions to scientists are being rerouted to the government’s media relations team. Often, journalists’ questions are as basic as asking what a scientific term means, or what the purpose of a study was. We’re not talking about matters of national security. Scientists aren’t even allowed to answer questions on topics such as snowfall patterns4 or bison genes.
There have been numerous examples of scientists being prohibited from publicly discussing their peer-reviewed science5. At scientific conferences, they are increasingly being paired with a government communications person (commonly referred to as ‘handlers’) who accompany them6. Science journalists have reported week long delays in getting answers to simple questions, if they get an answer at all4.
In early 2012, a number of science and science journalism organizations signed a letter to Prime Minister Harper asking that the muzzling of government scientists stop7. Despite this and other actions, the muzzling has continued and the situation is getting worse. Just last month Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre submitted a letter to the Information Commissioner asking her to investigate and determine whether the new science-communication policies are even legal8.
We’re now seeing communication policies that put up additional barriers for government scientists to publish their work and make it harder for them to collaborate with non-governmental scientists. New rules at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) allow government managers to stop the publication of research even after it has been through the peer-review process and accepted by a scientific journal9. These new rules apply not only to government scientists, but even to their non-government collaborators. According to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, this policy is designed to protect Canadian intellectual property10.
Rules like this are not the norm. A U.S. scientist working on a joint Canada-U.S. Arctic science project recently spoke out when the DFO insisted that he sign a strict confidentiality agreement that would prohibit him from talking about the research with anyone without the approval of our government10. He refused to sign saying that the new rules went against academic freedom and could result in muzzling.
These new policies also make it harder for our public scientists to do their jobs - open communication within the scientific community is how science progresses.
Does this sound like an appropriate communication plan for a transparent and accountable government?
Does this sound like a government that values scientific evidence and its important role in informing both public debate and government programs and policies?
If you think these new rules go too far, join us in calling for a new government policy - similar to policies that have been adopted in the United States and Britain - that makes it explicit that scientists are able to communicate their results openly and freely to the public, except where there is compelling evidence that doing so is not in the public’s best interest.
Scientists and journalists have spoken out, but the government didn’t listen. We need to show them that all Canadians stand behind our public scientists and want them to be able to communicate openly with the media and the public.
Here’s how you can take action to support the open and transparent communication of public science:
- Send a message to the government telling them that you want public scientists to speak freely.
- Help get the word out that government scientists are being muzzled. Share on Facebook, Twitter and email your friends.
- Please donate today. We are a new advocacy group and we need your support to continue to bring attention to this issue.
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- Environment Canada 'muzzles' scientists' dealings with media (Ottawa Citizen, February 1 2008)
- Muzzling scientists? (CBC Power and Politics, February 21 2013)
- Marc Garneau promises to ungag government scientists (Ottawa Citizen, February 27 2013)
- Canadian bureaucracy and a joint study with NASA (Ottawa Citizen, April 20 2012)
- Ottawa silences scientist over West Coast salmon study (Vancouver Sun, July 27 2011)
- Federal scientists closely monitored during polar conference (CBC, April 24 2012)
- Letter from science and science journalism organizations. (iPolitics, February 16 2012)
- Could muzzling federal scientists be illegal? (CBC, February 20 2013)
- New Policy Gives Government Power to Muzzle DFO Scientists (iPolitics, February 7 2013)
- Scientist calls new confidentiality rules on Arctic project ‘chilling’ (Postmedia News, Feb 14 2013)