Federal scientists face tighter media rules
Last Updated: Monday, September 20, 2010 | 1:21 PM ET
The Canadian Press
Canada's scientific community is buzzing over newly tightened rules that further restrict government researchers from speaking with the media about their work.Officials speaking on behalf of Natural Resources Canada have to first get 'instruction' from the minister’s office, the department says. (Canadian Press)
Yet the No. 1 policy statement for government communications, according to Treasury Board, is to "Provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about its policies, programs, services and initiatives."
The directive is part of the "Communications policy of the Government of Canada," posted on the Treasury Board website and dated Aug. 1, 2006, months after the Conservatives came to power.
The policy calls on public servants to speak "openly" with Canadians.
'Whenever you have a filter you are, by definition, losing information.'— Jeff Hutchings, Dalhousie University
"Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility," says the document.
"Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making and enables the public to assess performance."
The policy suggests there's a gaping disconnect with government practice.
Recent access-to-information documents obtained by PostMedia News reveal that all media inquiries to scientists working for Natural Resources Canada must now pass through a Byzantine thicket of "subject matter experts" and the minister's director of communications — "no exceptions."
As one bureaucrat warned in an internal email: "What may appear to be a simple request for facts may actually relate to policy or high-profile issues."
The email simply puts in print what journalists covering the Harper government deal with on a daily basis.
And it's a continuing irritant that has alarmed many public service professionals and research scientists.
"It's a huge concern among professionals in the public service," said Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.
"This goes to other questions about the value the government places on the advice of the professional public service — scientists who work on everything from climate change to emerging diseases to emerging pests."
Jeff Hutchings, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, sees disturbing parallels between the current federal suppression of free scientific discussion and the way fish stock data was handled during his time as a researcher with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in the early 1990s.
A 1993 survey of scientists in Newfoundland found that research in the cod moratorium was "gruesomely mangled and corrupted to meet political ends."
The ensuing public outcry, which tarred both Conservative and Liberal governments, eventually led to a more relaxed regime for federal scientists to speak out in public, highlighting the research they were doing with tax dollars.
More relaxed rules ended with Harper
That media access closed with a clang under the Harper government.
In one celebrated 2006 incident, an Environment Canada scientist was ordered not to attend the launch of his own novel, an apocalyptic piece of fiction revolving around global warming.
"How can society properly evaluate the flow of information, the type of information, without actually talking to the [science] practitioners themselves — or having the media do so," Hutchings said in an interview.
"Whenever you have a filter you are, by definition, losing information. I don't know how anyone can make the argument that objectively society is better served by having filters through a minister's office."
The government still maintains that its top communications priority is to provide timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information. (CBC)John Stone, a former career federal scientist and manager who now teaches at Carleton University in Ottawa, says there has always been the possibility of tension between raw research and government policy decisions.
Stone said government scientists usually know where to draw the line, and "most don't veer into policy questions because they understand they're really not competent to do that."
Stone, who retired in 2005 after spending the last 15 years of his public service career working on climate and atmospheric sciences, sees a disturbing trend.
Comparison to Bush regime
"What bothers me with what I see now in the federal government is what I saw when George W. Bush was in the White House in the U.S., where scientists were silenced and silent," he said, noting his work put him in direct contact with his American counterparts on climate-change science.
"My view is that any working democracy needs to have an established and healthy scientific establishment that can freely speak and contribute to public debate."
A veteran federal scientist — who spoke anonymously because of the government gag order — nevertheless offered a defence of ministerial screening.
'If you push this to the limit, is the weather forecast a matter for government approval before it can be published?'— John Drummond, Dalhousie University
"Scientists have basically a free hand to publish their scientific results in the scientific literature," said the 30-year public service veteran.
"Where the sensitivity comes is when that publication of a new scientific result leads to media interest — and I think primarily the possibility that media interest might lead toward a policy question."
Natural Resources Canada responded to inquiries about the apparent disconnect with Treasury Board communications policy by pointing to other elements in the same document.
"The minister is the primary spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada and as such, needs to be made aware of issues in the media which involve the department, so he can effectively fulfil his role," Patti Robson said in an email.
"As stated in the policy: 'Institutions must consult their minister's office when planning media campaigns or strategies that could involve ministerial participation, or when preparing a response to a media enquiry that could have implications for the minister.' "
In today's Ottawa, even a study on the break-up of a massive Ice Age dam 13,000 years ago apparently has "implications for the minister."
1 week to clear media lines
The Canadian co-author of the study didn't get his government media lines cleared for a full week last April, by which point the study had already been released and his international co-authors interviewed.
John Drummond, the Canada Research Chair in remote sounding of the environment at Dalhousie University, said there's a very real issue of information timeliness — something the government communications policy recognizes when it stresses "the capacity to respond effectively ... in a 24-hour, global communications environment."
"If you push this to the limit, is the weather forecast a matter for government approval before it can be published?" Drummond wondered.
"Because if you don't publish the weather forecast on time, it ain't much use."
"There is a line and I think it's being pushed considerably to the side where information flow is being impeded," said the scientist. "That's not doing us any good."
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