Government scientist muzzling: perception, reality, and towards workable solutions

At the risk of flogging a dead horse, I’m posting a response to Andrew Leach’s recent response to my response… you get the idea, it’s an engaging and ongoing debate around the muzzling of government scientists and their ability to communicate their findings with the public.

On the plus side, there is now a public discussion about this issue that wasn’t happening a few days ago, which is fantastic. Only through discourse will we be able to really identify the problem and come up with solutions. Also, I think that Dr. Leach’s views are very similar to my own, and that we agree on a lot of the same things. That is, I am now quite certain Dr. Leach is not suggesting that scientists who publish some interesting paper on some interesting topic should not be able to put those results into lay terms and communicate them broadly when asked by the media.

What does concern me is that government managers are going to read Andrew’s original piece and say “See? Our worst fears are confirmed. Our scientists are chomping at the bit to call foul on anything they can, given any chance they can, so thank goodness we have such a locked-down, convoluted process for media approval so we can keep a lid on things.” I hope that doesn’t happen, and I think the truth is quite the opposite from this, for a number of reasons, which I hope to better outline below.

To reiterate, the part of the debate that Andrew has decided to focus on, or the area of this debate which most interests him, is the notion that government scientists, and their supporters, seek to be unmuzzled so as to raise alarms or seek a means of calling the government out on policy decisions- a role, that Andrew points out, is reserved for Officers of Parliament (e.g., those whose task it is to call the government out, like the Auditor General). In his response, and I think in partial defense of his original thesis, Dr. Leach refers to the recent survey that PIPSC released (this is the union to which I used to belong, representing those in the public service whom are engaged in Scientific research), which indicated that a large chunk (86%) of those surveyed “do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department” faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health. Is this what we expect of government scientists to do? Do we expect government scientists to realistically be put in this position in the first place, to play a role in holding the government to account?

“Maybe that’s not what anyone expects, and if so, that’s fine by me.”

I would like to think that most of us in this muzzling debate are on the side of saying that’s not what we expect, so great, we’re in agreement. As Dr. Leach points out in the first part of his response, this is a large, convoluted issue, with many aspects in terms of how government can limit scientific investigation through either program funding, staffing, and the like, all of which deserves a broader discussion. For the purpose of this post, let’s focus on the specific thesis under discussion.

Perception

In many ways, this debate, I think, boils down to perception. For instance, one could conclude that those higher up in government might actually share Dr. Leach’s concerns, as a justification for the current communications policies they have in place. Officially, you’ll be told that it’s Ministers that are the face of their departments, and are therefore the ones who should be talking about the work in their departments, not scientists. But that’s clearly not always the case- Heritage Minister Shelly Glover is not the one being quoted in the media about the Franklin Expedition, it’s Ryan Harris, a senior Parks archeologist. We do occasionally hear from government scientists from time to time, so clearly that’s not the issue.

It’s important to note that to defend the part of the debate that Andrew is most interested in, he is turning to the perception of those in a survey to do so. To be fair, he fully recognizes the subjective nature of the survey, but let’s dissect it a bit anyway, in the context of the current debate. There is a perceived notion among the majority of those surveyed that they are unable to share concerns around some scientific finding that would contravene government policy. First, it’s important to note that the question is a bit leading (“e.g., you know something that your family doesn’t that will harm them- would you tell them even if your employer says you can’t?”). The perception (and the question asked in the survey) presupposes that the government, having reviewed the evidence, had already willingly decided to put either human health of Canadians or the environment at direct risk; within the context of the current discussion, it also supposes now that a scientist has shown this risk over the course of a scientific study, the findings of which have been published in the scientific literature, but is not made available for comment to speak about the study. I think there are very few examples where this might truly be supported by actual examples- e.g., actual cases where the government is knowingly forging ahead despite the (published) risks outlined by their own scientists as published in the peer-reviewed literature, and were made unavailable for comment for fear they’d put these risks in more clear terms. Does a true disregard for the voting electorate like this occur commonly enough to justify such a perception among government scientists? I would suggest it isn’t, but could be convinced if shown evidence to the contrary (that’s the great thing about evidence-based decision making!). I’ll make the point here that this perception among government scientists makes for a weak defense of the original thesis. To move forward then, let’s ask the question, where does this perception among government scientists come from?

Reality

What we DO observe when we look at the track record of government science muzzling is that studies reporting seemingly innocuous results that have little import to government policy (e.g., studies about snowfall patterns or floods that occured 13,000 years ago) are the examples we hear about where government scientists are unable to communicate their results outside of the original publication- e.g., publish in the scientific literature, but fat chance if CBC or CNN wants to talk to you about it. Knowing that, put yourself in the shoes of all the other government scientists. If they aren’t going to let this person talk about this study, then what do you think they’d do if you conducted a study that makes their policies look bad?

Further, as mentioned before, every public servant- scientists, to administrative assistants, summer students, right up to the Clerk of the Privy Council signs the values and ethics code, where you agree that you’ll never speak out against the government or it’s policies while under it’s employment. So you start off from that perspective. Presumably, this gives the government all the power it needs to ensure it’s scientists don’t call them out on policy. As C. Scott Findlay pointed out in his response, it’s not the scientists whom are looking to question government policy- that’s for someone else, like the voting electorate.

Workable solutions

Dr. Leach ends his piece with a call for proposals of workable solution. Here’s one. Be okay with people being responsible for their own actions, and let people do the jobs they were hired to do. Nearly all the decision-making power in the federal public service these days is at the highest levels of administration. Need travel approval? Goes to the Assistant Deputy Minister. maybe higher. Need to hire someone? Get approval from your Regional Director, maybe higher. Have a media request? Good luck. In each case, there are often 3-5 levels of administration between the scientist making the request and the person doing the approval. Why is all the decision making so centralized? Surely these decisions can be made by people who are closer to those making the requests.  I’m all for some kind of approval mechanism, but surely it could be less convoluted than it is. Trust government scientists to follow the values and ethics code that they agreed to follow when you hired them. In short, trust your staff. Demonstrating to your staff that you trust them by delegating responsibility would be a great first step in resolving these issues. Keeping all the decision-making power so centralized just makes people feel undervalued.

Is this suggestion prescriptive enough? Perhaps not. Does it give clear guidelines for when it’s okay to limit communication vs. not? No. It forces managers (and scientists themselves) to use their common sense, seek guidance from their supervisors when needed, and follow the agreement they signed when they became public servants. As this current exchange between Dr. Leach, myself, and many others has made clear, this is a broad debate with many facets, but maybe we can start here.

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Unmuzzle the scientists? Yes, please.

Never one to shy away from being provocative, Andrew Leach wrote an opinion piece in Maclean’s magazine about why we as a society should be okay with our federal government being in control of the messaging of the research performed by it’s public servant scientists. In it, he envisions government scientists waving the flag of their evidence-based discoveries against all other considerations for informing policy, because, surely, they must think this is the only thing worth considering.

Perhaps to suit the tone of the article, Andrew has adopted a fairly narrow (and in my opinion, naive view) of what it is that federal government scientists are looking for with regards to the ability to communicate their results more freely. To be fair, his main premise is: should government researchers be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers?

In many ways, this point is moot from the start. See the Values and Ethics code we all signed when we started our jobs with the federal public service. Despite the assertions of Andrew Leach, no government scientist I know in their right mind would want to push their results and papers out into the world and be interviewed by the media to say just how much it contravenes the policy of the current government. To do so would be grounds for dismissal. But why not let them talk about their studies and results, without the policy-related questions? People do it all the time in interviews, including academics- just listen to Quirks and Quarks on CBC- few scientists are tromping out the “what we should be doing”, the vast majority are just really excited about the work they’ve done. E.g., state the facts, and conclusions, in an unbiased fashion, as we’d all like to do, and have the capacity to inform the public about our science. Over twitter, Andrew suggests that having their papers read by other scientists should be enough, but even he can appreciate the added buzz that goes along with articles when it ends up in the public discussion- he writes for Maclean’s, after all!

Returning to Andrew’s point in the article, to suggest that scientists think that their evidence should be considered above all else with regards to forming public policy (or, as Andrew puts it, “Those with the lab coats do not have a monopoly on evidence”),
pays little credit to the intelligent folks that are employed as government scientists. Having recently been one, we are all keenly aware of all the other issues at play in shaping good public policy, and that the scientific evidence under consideration (be it health impacts, environmental impacts, discoveries of other scientific importance) is only one part of the equation. An article that I’ve pointed to many times here by Jake Rice, Senior Scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, would seem to demonstrate that we are keenly aware of the nature of science and scientific evidence in informing public policy, and the need to keep that science free of bias such that it receives proper weighting at the policy table. That is NOT to say that it’s the only thing to consider, but when folks look back 30 years later on the cod stocks of Newfoundland, we can clearly evaluate what happens when policy makers place emphasis on short-term economic gains in the face of longer-term ecological (and ultimately, economic) stability.

In many ways, NOT letting government scientists do the talking is backfiring for the government, and badly. My strategy before leaving the public service was to make sure that I had university co-authors on any paper I published, to make sure that someone would be able to discuss the results. However, as Andrew pointed out in his article, university researchers are not as bound as the government’s own scientists with regards to what they can say. Take, for example, the recent PR disaster facing Environment Canada and NRC over John Smol, and the government research paper that he was involved in. Do you think that, were the lead government scientists permitted to discuss their research, that they would have had the same messaging as Smol? No way. Government scientists are bound by their Values and Ethics code of conduct, and are repeatedly reminded of it. Give them a chance to show that they know how to conduct good science, and can communicate it, too, without getting fired or going through the 7 circles of administrivia to get permission to talk about it.

As Andrew says, “If you want to take the muzzle off government researchers, that’s fine if you want it for the right reasons. I’m all in favour of increasing the quality of information available both to our decision-makers and to the general public.” Hear hear. So why inflame the discussion by suggesting that the issue of muzzling is about something that it’s not?

I also agree with Andrew that there is a strong role for Government science, both with regards to the science one can do under it (as opposed to under academic science), and with the spot it gives you at the table when it comes to forming policy- that’s outlined in an early post over here. Ironically, though, since internal science capacity is so strapped with all the recent cuts to federal research departments, it’s groups like the Canadian Aquatic Resources Section of the American Fisheries Society that are in talks with the government now, keen to fill the holes that have been left. It seems that when you kick the scientists out of government, they get jobs in academia, and still try to give you the advice you employed them for in the first place.

And PS, Andrew, not all of us wear lab coats; something I am sure he is keenly aware of being a colleague of David Schindler. I tried my best to find the stereotype of economists, but I hate to say they weren’t terribly flattering. Of course, I don’t suggest nor have any reason to believe that these apply to Andrew, but that’s what you get with stereotypes in public writing. Andrew is a great writer, and has a lot of insightful things to say in his articles, but I feel like this one misses the mark entirely.