Federal scientists muzzled by media policies, report suggests

Canadian government scientists face far more restrictions on talking to the media than their U.S. counterparts, a new analysis suggests.

Defence scores highest for openness, while Natural Resources Canada among lowest

More than 800 scientists from outside Canada in 35 countries around the world signed the open letter. (Mason Trinca/Yakima Herald-Republic/Associated Press)

Canadian government scientists face far more restrictions on talking to the media than their U.S. counterparts, a new analysis has found.

The study of media policies from 16 federal departments was released today by Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit group that advocates for evidence-based public policy. The group organized rallies across the country in support of federal scientists in 2013.

The analysis, led by Karen Magnuson-Ford, a researcher at Simon Fraser University who has a master's degree in biology, found that all but one department performed worse than the average for U.S. government departments in similar analyses in 2008 and 2013. The policies were assessed on:

  • How accessible, clear and consistent they were.
  • How well they promoted openness and timeliness of communication.
  • How much protection they offered scientists against political interference.
  • How well they protected scientists' right to free speech.
  • How much protection they offered for whistleblowers.

"Overwhelmingly, current media policies do not effectively support open communication between federal scientists and the media," the report said. "Scientists are the best spokespeople for their own work and, barring rare instances where information is highly sensitive, it is essential that they be able to communicate their expertise to the media and the public."

The report scored the media policies of each department based on 14 specific criteria such as whether the policy is publicly available online and whether clearance is required for media interview questions addressed to scientists. Three departments that didn't have their own policies —  Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and Transport Canada — were scored based on the federal government's more general overall communications policy.

Wide variation

Overall, there was a wide variation in scores among departments, with the Department of National Defence and the National Research Council scoring highest. Departments receiving the lowest scores were:

  • The Canadian Space Agency.
  • Public Works and Government Services Canada.
  • Industry Canada.
  • Natural Resources Canada.

"In the best-case scenarios, scientists can talk directly to the journalist," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy and co-author of the report. "In the worst-case scenario, they have to pass everything on to communications staff."

The report found that the Department of National Defence was the only government department that didn't require pre-approval from its media relations officers for scientists to speak to the media.

The National Research Council was the only department that allows its scientists to express their personal views, provided he or she states that the opinions are his or her own.

CBC News requested comments about the report from several government departments, who redirected the request to Ed Holder, minister of state for science and technology. Holder did not respond directly, but stated in the House of Commons Wednesday afternoon that "ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments yet scientists have and are readily available to share their research with Canadians."

The statement was made in response to a question in French from Laurin Liu, NDP MP for the Quebec riding for Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, about when the Conservatives would "end their war against our scientists."

Meanwhile, the authors of the new report cautioned that their analysis looked only at media policies themselves, and noted that how the policies are put into practice might be quite different.

"I suspect there is a pretty big gap there," Gibbs said, noting that Fisheries and Oceans scored high in the report, but has been the subject of many stories about the muzzling of government scientists.

Gibbs said the analysis was inspired by public concerns that federal scientists were being restricted from talking to the media.

A 2013 survey of federal government scientists by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada suggested that political interference preventing government scientists from speaking freely was widespread.

That same year, Canada's information commissioner confirmed that her office would investigate allegations the federal government is muzzling its scientists, following a complaint by the non-profit group Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic.

That same year, Canada's information commissioner confirmed that her office would investigate allegations the federal government is muzzling its scientists, following a complaint by the non-profit group Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic.

U.S. success

"We've been looking to what other countries have done when they've been in similar positions and facing similar challenges," Gibbs said.

If [the U.S.] can make these improvements across the board, so can we.— Arne Mooers, Simon Fraser University

She learned that the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a similar analysis of U.S. federal government media policies in 2008, when there were complaints of scientists being muzzled under President George W. Bush. A similar study in 2013 found significant improvement.

Gibbs added that while there has been much talk about Canadian government communications policies contributing to the muzzling of scientists, "there's really been no systematic assessment of that."

The assessment wasn't that easy to do: Only two of the 16 departments made their media policies available online. Most others required the researchers to file several access to information requests.

Gibbs said she hopes the new report will help facilitate discussion, provide a baseline to compare against in the future, and provide useful recommendations to government departments.

Top recommendations include:

  • Allowing scientists to speak to the media without pre-approval.
  • Explicitly allowing scientists to state their opinions, provided they make clear that they are speaking on behalf of themselves and not on behalf of the government.

Arne Mooers, a Simon Fraser University biology professor who helped supervise the analysis, said the fact that the Department of National Defence did so well came as a surprise, but it shows that it is possible for federal government departments to craft good media policies.

They're not ignorant of the consequences of what they are doing.— Elly Alboim, communications strategist and former journalist

He added that the 2008 U.S. report spurred U.S. federal government departments to improve their media policies.

"If they can make these improvements across the board, so can we," Mooers said. "It's not like our departments are somehow doing something more sensitive than they are."

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 55,000 public servants, including 15,000 scientists, called the report's recommendations "very workable." In a statement, she urged the federal government to implement them.

Elly Alboim, a communications strategist and former CBC parliamentary bureau chief, was not optimistic that the report will influence the government.

"They're not ignorant of the consequences of what they're doing," said Alboim, who teaches a course in government communications at Queen's University's School of Policy Studies. "The policies are designed to accomplish an objective. They clearly have thought it through and they're willing to take the criticism in order to ensure there isn't competing evidentiary grounds on which to form policy."

The changes to media policies in the U.S., he said, took place under a different government facing different pressures and constraints.

Report may influence voters, scientists

On the other hand, he added, the report itself provides valuable evidence. This individual report may not make much a difference alone, he said, but "cumulatively, more and more evidence of the way it conducts itself as a government is causing people to reconsider whether they want it to continue as a government."

Kennedy Stewart, science and technology critic for the NDP and MP for the B.C. riding of Burnaby-Douglas, also doesn't think that the report will lead to changes in government media policies. "Reports like these, I think, encourage more scientists to get involved and speak out and I think that's where the real value is."

Stewart added that the findings of the report aren't surprising, but "the level of detail is very welcome."

In 2013, Stewart introduced a private member's motion on scientific integrity in the House of Commons that would support federal scientists' ability to speak to the media and protect them from political interference. It hasn't been accepted or rejected by the government.

Both Alboim and Stewart, an associate professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University, said the methods used for the study were sound.

Gibbs said she and Magnuson-Ford worked closely with the Union of Concerned Scientists to try and make their scoring consistent with the U.S. study. For some criteria, such as whether the policy was available online, the scoring was discrete and objective. In other cases, Gibbs acknowledged that scoring was more subjective. When that was the case, she said the researchers tried to consider how a federal scientist would interpret and score the policy.

The study was funded by the Centre for Coastal Studies at SFU, Evidence for Democracy, the NSERC Canada Discovery Grants Program, the Willow Grove Foundation and the University of Ottawa.

With a file from Susana Mas


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