Canada's Restrictions on Scientists' Speech Raise Concerns

VANCOUVER, CANADA—Government scientists in Canada are facing growing restrictions on their ability to speak directly to the public and the press—and could benefit from new policies being instituted south of the border in the United States, according to panelists discussing the issue at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider) in Vancouver, Canada, this past week.

In one example, Margaret Munro, a reporter with Postmedia News in Canada, noted that media relations rules implemented in 2007 by Environment Canada, an agency similar to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), have hindered communication between journalists and scientists. It's become so difficult to try to get an interview with government scientists that a lot of reporters have stopped trying, she said. When researchers are allowed to speak, they are sometimes given approved messages to relay to reporters.

A second panelist, Andrew Weaver, a fisheries scientist at the University of Victoria, discussed internal government reports showing that media coverage of climate change science from Environment Canada had dropped precipitously. (Click on the video below to hear his comments.)

Credit: Jane J. Lee

WEAVER: It's almost that there's no government science being discussed now in Canada. You saw the stats that I put up where internal documents for the federal government lauded the fact that there was an 80% decline in the amount of climate change, Environment Canada, science that's being discussed. So it's … you know, I think they want to but it's a very cumbersome task and again, I come back to the sad reality that this is not celebrating the successes of Canadian science.

In the United States, President Barack Obama's Administration says it is attempting to free up the lines of communication between government scientists and the public by asking agencies to revamp their scientific integrity policies. Session attendee Colin Quinn helped draft NOAA's new policy, part of its revamped Scientific Integrity Policy, which has gotten a lot of envious looks from researchers on both sides of the border.

Credit: Jane J. Lee

QUINN: So NOAA's policy is part of this Administration's and NOAA's leadership's effort to create transparency in the government and one thing that is outlined in the policy is that scientists can communicate their research to the public and that scientists can not only communicate their research, but they can also communicate their opinions to the public and I think that's a very important aspect of the policy.

It's not yet clear exactly how the new policy will affect communication efforts, and Quinn says NOAA is still in the process of making sure all their employees know about it. But he believes the guidelines will help the agency avoid the appearance that it is muzzling researchers, and set an example for other agencies.

Weaver, for one, says the NOAA policy is something Canadian agencies should aspire to.

Credit: Jane J. Lee

WEAVER: Everybody looks to the NOAA policy as an amazing piece of communications policy. This is a great success. It's wonderful what NOAA has done there. And some might even argue that they don't need to go as far as that. This is an amazing policy. It basically says you can talk to media whenever you want on any aspect of your expertise and if you want to talk about policy you go do it, but you make sure that you say this is your view and this is not your department's view or your government's view and that's fair enough. I mean you might add to that small caveats that if you're going to talk to the government about policy you do it on your own time and not in the university building. So, there's things like that that could be modified. But the essence is there. It's the dream policy. It's kind of the gold, the platinum standard by which everyone else will be judged.

Organizers of the AAAS session invited deputy ministers from Canadian agencies, such as Fisheries and Oceans and Environment Canada, to participate in the discussion but they declined to attend.

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