Thursday, 28 May 2015

For Federal Scientists' Right to Communicate

Last week the CBC published an interview with recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana. The interview was granted on the condition that it not be published until Campana retired, as he feared repercussions; according to Campana, federal scientists are working in a “climate of fear.”

The issue has to do with restrictions that the federal government has placed on the ability of government scientists’ ability to communicate with the media and with the general public about the results of their work. In most departments, there are policies in place that require all media requests to be passed along to official media representatives. This often results in delays or no response at all; last fall a media request for an interview with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Max Bothwell about Didymo algae (which, outside of scientific circles, is known as "rock snot") resulted in 110 pages of e-mails involving 16 different communications officials, but no story. In a more egregious case, in 2012 Environment Canada researchers attending a conference in honour of the International Polar Year were accompanied by media relations officers to ensure that no unapproved communication with reporters took place.

A recent study, Can Scientists Speak? by Evidence for Democracy has systematically examined communication policies in federal departments and has found that they impede open and timely communication between scientists and the media, and fail to provide protections against political interference in science communication. As Chris Turner makes clear in his book, The War on Science, this is a drastic departure from practices that have long been observed by Canadian governments, of any party, wherever they lie on the political spectrum. The democratic ideal is that all constituencies have access to policy-relevant information, and then heatedly disagree about how to form policy on the basis of that information. The constraints on scientists’ ability to communicate is something new. As marine toxicologist Peter Ross put it in the CBC documentary, The Silence of the Labs, “We are flying along in an airplane, and we’ve put curtains over the windshield of those pilots, of that flight-crew, and we’ve turned off the instruments.”

Those of us who work in an academic environment enjoy the right to freely publicize our work (at least in so far as this doesn’t not infringe on confidentiality), and we understand the importance of communication for the advancement of knowledge. We should not turn our back on our colleagues who are in the public employ. For that reason I have created a petition, aimed at researchers in academic institutions, calling on the federal government to implement policies that will ensure the freedom of scientists to communicate the results of taxpayer-funded research to the Canadian public. This is meant to complement the broader-based petition hosted by Evidence for Democracy.

Please sign, and share widely!

Petition: Restore Federal Scientists' Freedom to Communicate.

© 2015 Wayne C. Myrvold 

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