Government accused of manipulating science news

The federal government engages in "unacceptable political interference" in the communication of government science, says the head of a group that represents both government press officers and science journalists.
Kathryn O'Hara, president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, writes that 'openness is being held ransom to media messages that serve the government's political agenda.' ((Courtesy of Canadian Science Writers' Association) )
The federal government engages in "unacceptable political interference" in the communication of government science, says the head of a group that represents both government press officers and science journalists.

"Openness is being held ransom to media messages that serve the government's political agenda," wrote Kathryn O'Hara, president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, in an opinion published online Wednesday in the international scientific journal Nature.

The article comes during Right to Know Week in Canada, a celebration of open information that "ironically … comes on the back of new evidence of unacceptable political interference in the public statements of federal government researchers," said O'Hara, who is also the CTV chair in science broadcast journalism at Carleton University. 

Public loss

Scientists say it is the public that may lose out when government science news isn't communicated properly.

Prof. Normand Mousseau, a physics professor at the University of Montreal, said communication is a key part of science.

"If I make the science, I put it in a book and bury it, it's useless."

With government science, communication with the public is particularly important because it's usually more relevant than university research to people's everyday lives and concerns, and may drive policies that affect their lives directly, said Mousseau, former communications director for the Canadian Association of Physicists.

It's also publicly funded, said Paul Dufour, who has spent the past 30 years working in the field of science policy for both government and science agencies, including the now defunct Office of the National Science Adviser.

"Taxypayers are wanting to know what happens to their money that's going to all these agencies and departments that perform research, regulation, health, safety, defence, etc.," he said.

He added that it is natural for all governments to want to manage and control outgoing communications, but the extent varies from government to government. However, he said the Harper government has been interested in management and control of information from Day 1.

"So one should not be surprised that that holds true for information related to science like any other issue."

"This message manipulation shows a disregard for both the values and virtues of journalism and science," she said.

O'Hara, whose group represents more than 450 media professionals, communications officers, technical writers and educators, including government press officers, referred to a case detailed recently by PostmediaNews journalist Margaret Munro.

Documents obtained by Munro through access to information showed several communications managers, policy advisers, political staff and senior officials were involved drafting and vetting "media lines" for Natural Resources Canada geoscientist Scott Dallimore.

Consequently, it took a week for him to get clearance to talk to the media about his study on a flood in northern Canada 13,000 years ago, which was published in Nature on April 1.

O'Hara wrote that when scientists are muzzled, it is hard to maintain public trust in taxpayer-funded research. Journalists need to talk to scientists to avoid misinterpreting research, she added.

Her article called for a return to a procedure "that has served us well in the past."

It used to be, O'Hara said in an interview, that journalists could simply phone a federal scientist and talk to him or her.

And there was a period of time not long ago when departments such as Health Canada were becoming more and more accessible, she said.

"After this government came in," O'Hara said, "it was like the door shut again."

Problem not acknowledged

The science writers' association began talks with at least one deputy minister after its members, including both journalists and press officers, voiced their frustrations at the group's annual meeting June.

Since March, Natural Resources Canada scientists have had to get pre-approval from Minister Christian Paradis's office to speak with journalists. They must also get ministerial approval for everything they say to the news media. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))
However, O'Hara said that so far the government hasn't acknowledged there is a problem, and that is a big challenge.

Natural Resources Canada spokeswoman Patti Robson told CBC News in an email earlier in September that it "has adhered and continues to adhere to the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, which has been in effect for years."

The statement was in response to Munro's piece, which showed new rules went into force in March requiring Natural Resources Canada scientists to get "pre-approval" from minister Christian Paradis's office to speak with journalists and to get ministerial approval for all their "media lines."

Robson said it is the "obligation" of the office of the natural resources minister to "review the coming and going of all information related to the department."

Environment Canada was accused of being "in lockdown mode" on an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette Saturday by environmental journalist Glen Blouin.

The department has publicly maintained that for the past two years it has followed a media relations policy consistent with those used by many private and public sector organizations and designed to ensure media requests get quick, accurate, and consistent responses.

Press officers frustrated

Despite the official lines, during this year's Canadian Science Writers' Association, it was government press officers who expressed the most frustration about recent changes to rules for communicating with the media, which extend well beyond interview requests.

Among them was Carolyn Brown, who left her job as the manager of journals at the National Research Council Research Press in to pursue a freelance career in June, around the time the federal publishing house was privatized.

Many scientific journals routinely issue press releases about articles that are of public interest. Brown did that to generate media interest when articles in the NRC Research Press's 15 journals were relevant to Canadian communities or public policy issues — "because these are academic journals not usually read by non-scientists," she told CBC News in a recent interview.

However, two years ago, new rules began requiring the press releases to get approval from the Privy Council Office.

The first time Brown went through the new procedure, her press release was not approved. She was told someone in Parks Canada objected to the release on independent research about rivers in Banff National Park. The second time, the press release was delayed until months after the article it described was published.

"After a couple of these experiences, we decided it was not worth our time and trouble to put out press releases anymore about articles appearing in our journals," she said.

Colleagues at other departments recounted similar experiences, she said: "Delays to the point that the press release wasn't relevant. Press releases being completely stopped. And press releases being rewritten to put the focus on the MP in the riding."

The Canadian Science Writers' Association put out a call to members in August asking them to submit reports about such incidents from both journalists' and government press officers' perspectives to present during the group's talks with government officials.