How muzzled are government scientists now?

A recent flurry of articles from Sun Media have appeared in the news over the past few days to question (a) whether muzzling has changed under the new Liberal government, (b) whether it was just made up in the first place by disgruntled scientists, or (c) it was all hype, or worse yet that the scientists had some alternative agenda in mind.

Let’s look at each of these and see what we can conclude on our own.

A. Muzzling hasn’t changed under the new government. The main evidence for this argument in this article is that PIPSC (the union representing government scientists) has indicated that not all departments are equally open, and a quote from Catherine McKenna indicating the official policy that’s in place around scientists communicating to the media, and how it hasn’t changed since the liberals took power.

First, I’ll agree that not all departments are equally open; after the instructions from the newly elected government to better facilitate communication, some departments have been better than others at lifting access to scientists. Some of the better among them (much to my surprise) has been DFO. I think we’ve heard a lot more news stories from scientists in Fisheries and Oceans, including stories about the barriers they faced previously to communicating their science; Kristi Miller and Max Bothwell among them. I think it’s fair to say that neither of those stories would have run under the previous administration.

Do other departments need to do a better job of both facilitating scientists communicating their research and helping promote government scientists, and does that vary across departments? Definitely. But keep in mind that when science departments were busy showing biologists and research scientists the door, they were also downsizing their communications departments, and these also need to see reinvestment. Communications professionals help publicize and facilitate the communication of the great work our federal dollars pay for.

One other point to keep in mind is that the folks in middle management- the ones that helped facilitate cuts to departments, and keeping a lid on science communications- are still there. The gang at the top has changed, but we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s resistance from the managing public servants that so dutifully carried out the reductionist mandate of the previous government.

Second- the official policy hasn’t changed. I’ll also agree with that. The problem is that the previous government wasn’t following the official policy- instead of allowing scientists to speak about their science (not policy, but science) without approval, this was clearly not the case (Max Bothwell’s experience was a great example of this, who was not granted an interview after 110 pages of e-mails among bureaucrats worried about upsetting the PMO at the time).

B. The issue was made up by disgruntled scientists. Citing the nearly 1,500 interviews that scientists gave leading up to the election, one of the articles seems to suggest that this is evidence of a lack of muzzling. More instructive would be what proportion of those interviews were denied (and remember, the policy since 2008 is that if the interview is about science, not policy, you don’t need permission, so one can ask why we have such good numbers on “granted” interviews in the first place). A survey conducted by PIPSC (the union representing government scientists) indicated that up to 40% of all media requests to scientists were denied in the years preceeding the last election. However, departmental reports would be more instructive to tell us the real numbers- hopefully that will be something revealed in the anticipated report by Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, but there is no indication when that report will be released.

C. Despite the muzzle being off, we don’t see any news stories from government scientists. Again, plain wrong. Just because in the slow news days of summers we aren’t inundated by government science stories doesn’t mean it’s not being communicated (journalists and communications officers, and scientists, occasionally, take vacation too). Surely Mark Bonokoski knows that scientists aren’t usually calling up their reporter buddies to tell them their most recent findings- these usually come from press releases from journals, or in academics, from press offices of universities. For government scientists, these would come from communications departments, and that’s an area where I think reinvestment is still being made. Regardless, the evidence seems to suggest that when the journalists do call, the scientists are free to speak.

One example are the stories above from Miller and Bothwell regarding their experiences, which never would have happened under the previous government.

Miller has also talked about her ongoing research as well, something we needed a federal inquiry to hear about from her under the previous administration.

How about this: DFO scientists talking about their research on youtube (here and here). Great to see Lisa (Dr. Loseto, that is) being able to discuss her research program like this. Again, never would have gotten permission to do this previously.

Finally, look at any of DFO’s activity on it’s twitter feeds (@DFO_MPO, @DFO_Pacific, @DFO_Maritimes, @DFO_Science). Like never before, there’s interaction with the public, and promotion of regional science by regional scientists.

Are some departments doing better than others? Yes. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely. But to suggest that everything is exactly the same and hasn’t changed is misleading and not supported by the evidence.

D. It was all some secret agenda (“their motives are suspect”). Maybe Mark should just pick up the phone and call a government scientist and see if he’s looped through a zillion approvals, or if he’s free to talk to the person about their research to test this theory. If newspapers want to promote conspiracy theories, that’s their prerogative. I’ll stick to the evidence.

So, after everything I’ve written here, am I surprised to be defending the government on science communication, especially DFO? A little, frankly, yes*. But maybe this response will encourage those departments to mount their own response, and demonstrate to the public what a good job they have done since October, and know they can do in the future in helping connect the public to the great science our government scientists are taking on.


*Don’t get me wrong, I still think a lot of what I wrote still holds true, and there’s all kinds of ways to help improve how federal science works. But it at least seems that they have started to recognize the importance of communicating the work of our scientists, from what I’ve seen since October.