sm-220--mask-labcoat-istock_000016777609small

Federal scientists must get approvals from many levels, up to the Privy Council Office, before they can speak to the media and sometimes the approvals are not granted in time for journalists' deadlines. (iStock)

Canadian government scientists are still being hampered from talking to the media about their taxpayer-funded research and that's bad news for the public, say groups representing both journalists and federal scientists.

The groups appealed to delegates at an international meeting of scientists in Vancouver on Friday, arguing that democracy depends on citizens having access to research so they can make informed decisions about government policy.

"If we're talking about policy that's informed by fact, if we're asking people to be critical thinkers, if we're asking people to engage in democratic process and to engage in democracy, it's incumbent of all of us that we make sure the process is transparent," said Kathryn O'Hara, a Carleton University journalism professor.

O'Hara was the moderator of a panel called "Unmuzzling government scientists: How to re-open the discourse" at the annual meeting of the American Association of the Advancement of Science.

"I don't think it's sustainable, I don't think it's tenable to continue … the way we have so far."

The panel discussion was part of a campaign for more open media access to federal scientists launched this week by the Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec, the Association science et bien commun, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, the Canadian Science Writers' Association, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the World Federation of Science Journalists.

The government has maintained that its scientists are not being muzzled and journalists have timely access to its researchers.

While introducing the panel, O'Hara expressed disappointment that Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, didn't respond to a request to participate in the panel, and that all other federal government officials invited to participate said they were not available.

Government taking control to 'quite incredible extremes'

However, the audience did hear from Postmedia's veteran science journalist Margaret Munro and University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, along with Francesca Grifo, a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists who has worked to improve media access to government scientists in the U.S.

Munro said that during much of her career, it was easy to reach federal scientists to talk about their published research, but in recent years that has changed dramatically. Now, the government is taking control to "quite incredible extremes," she said, citing her own recent experiences and the information she obtained by filing access to information requests about the problem.

Munro said federal scientists face many layers of approval before they can speak to the media, going all the way up to the Privy Council Office.

"It would be sort of like asking the White House," she said.

Approved interviews are taped, but often scientists can't get approval in time for journalists' deadlines or at all. In those cases, journalists instead receive written lines approved by the government, said Munro. She discovered that it's the result of a new government policy that says a single department should speak with one voice.

"Science sort of depends on debate and discussion," she said. "If you only have one voice, you don't have skeptical voice and you don't have proper debate. So I have a bit of a problem with that."

Weaver said most scientists are frustrated with the policies and their inability to speak about their research — some so much so that they are looking for jobs outside the government.

But Grifo offered some hope that things could change. The situation for U.S. government scientists was similar under George W. Bush's administration several years ago, she said. But the Union of Concerned Scientists took a systematic approach to changing things. It studied and scored the scientific integrity policies of different agencies, then used them to create best practice guidelines and encouraged agencies to seek public comments on their draft policies.

Just this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a new policy that encourages scientists to speak freely and allows them to express their opinions, provided they specify that those opinions are personal and not held by the government.

"That's quite wonderful," she said.

Both Grifo and Munro encouraged Canadians to document cases where scientists and journalists aren't allowed to speak with one another.

"There's been a lot of controversy and I think it's helping," Munro said, noting that there have been recent cases where journalists were surprised to find they were granted access to scientists.