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Come Talk to Me: Un-Muzzling Government Scientists

Sometimes I feel like I'm standing outside a broken phonebooth with money in my hand...Photo:StockXchange

Besides the rare and welcome chance to reference Peter Gabriel in a blog post title, today’s topic allows me to address an important issue that had been bugging me and all members of the Canadian science journalism community for quite a while: why is it so hard to talk to federal government scientists about their research?

The problem is not new. One of the first to sound the alarm was Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria and, as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As early as 2008, he was alleging that Canadian government scientists were not free to speak to the media as they saw fit. Since then, a string open letters and editorials has flowed forth from all quarters: Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) wrote a major piece in Nature in September 2010. CSWA issued its own open letter during last spring’s federal election. Last fall Bob MacDonald joined in the fray, and parliamentarians like Ted Hsu and Elizabeth May have weighed in as well.

I’ve had my own experiences with the phenomenon. Last spring, I interviewed Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick about how cold stratospheric temperatures led to more ozone depletion than usual in 2011. Although he was quite willing to talk to me, government policy required my questions to be submitted in advance by e-mail, and his written responses vetted by Environment Canada’s media relations department; I never did speak to him in person, and couldn’t ask any follow-up questions. More importantly, the whole process took about two weeks. If I had been writing for a daily publication instead of a monthly, the delay would have been unacceptably long. By contrast, his co-author on the paper, the University of Toronto’s Kaley Walker, was able to talk to me on the phone within 24 hours. But I was lucky; a few months later Postmedia News was prevented from speaking with Tarasick altogether.

This week saw a flurry of new activity on the file. Both CSWA and my hero Bob repeated their calls for an end to the muzzling, but these were just the appetizers. The main course was a panel session held today in Vancouver as part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (Incidentally, this is the first AAAS meeting to be held in Canada for 30 years; a friend of mine said they were “like eclipses” and described the meeting as “Disneyland for science writers.”) Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, I haven’t been able to attend, and have instead been monitoring the situation from home like a little league baseball player with a broken leg. According to the tweets I’ve been receiving, the session was standing room only, and the BBC even sent a film crew to cover it. The panel included Andrew Weaver himself, as well as Margaret Munro of Postmedia News and Francesca Grifo from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As of a few moments ago, the entire discussion is up on the web for anyone to see. Some choice comments from prominent Canadians connected with the issue have been collected by the fine folks at the Science Media Centre of Canada and are included below for your reading pleasure:

We are disappointed and frustrated by the restrictions that prevent us from getting timely access to federal government scientists. Scientists must be free to discuss their own work, and to comment on their own areas of expertise – free from censorship, manipulation, or fear of retribution. We hope the Canadian government will lift its restrictions on government scientists, and allow all Canadians to benefit from learning about their publicly-funded research.

Jim Handman, of CBC’s Quirks and Quarks

For almost three weeks after the announcement of a hole in the Arctic ozone layer, Environment Canada (EC) scientist Dr. David Tarasick was prevented from talking to the media about the discovery. Environment Minister Peter Kent declared categorically that ‘we do not muzzle our scientists,’ while at the same time his spokesperson was telling journalists that ‘an interview cannot be granted.’ When they finally relented, Dr. Tarasick told Postmedia reporter Mike De Souza that ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.’ These are not the words of a scientist who is free to speak.

Only an informed citizenry can properly exercise their democratic rights and ensure that government acts according to sound policy principles based on a factual understanding of the issues of the day. By muzzling scientists, the government is left free to make policy decisions based on ideology or other special interests. These decisions will not be successful if they fly in the face of physical reality.

Thomas J. Duck, Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia

So what more is there to say? Two things. First, I agree with Margaret Munro’s assertion that we need data. The experience of David Tarasick was widely reported, but a more banal form of this type of censorship happens every day as requests from journalists are delayed and scientists’ responses are manipulated. Affected scientists and journalists need to document these experiences, so the government can no longer claim they are isolated incidents.

Secondly, as was said during the panel discussion; the fact that we even had to have a public forum of this type to discuss this issue indicates that something is seriously wrong. If the government thought that clamping down on the flow of scientific information would help their cause (whatever it may be) then they’ve really shot themselves in the foot. The more they squeeze, the more the science journalism community and the public in general will feel the need to raise the alarm. And why shouldn’t they? Government-funded science is no different than any other public service. If tax dollars are being spent, the public has a right to hear about the conclusions.

3 comments

3 pings

  1. Alexander Wilhelm

    So who will track denied requests? Or are there already statistics available?

  2. Claire

    Hi I’m going to be writing a research essay on this particular topic for university. I was just wondering where I could find more information on this subject? If you could help it would be much appreciated Thank you.

    1. Tyler Irving

      The links in this post represent the best information I think is available on this issue, but if you want to get more I suggest you contact the Canadaian Science Writer’s Association; they have been leading the charge on this one.

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