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.



New radio documentary: Silencing the scientists


How pleased was I to find this radio documentary from the Terry Project at UBC on government science muzzling- it is well worth 30 minutes of your day to give it a listen here:


The most refreshing part of this piece compared to just about all the other stories on the topic that I’ve heard so far is that they talk to actual scientists who have been affected by this process. Peter Ross (whose DFO scientist profile is now down) was a prominent DFO scientist who I’ve written about before. Vince Palace is another ex-DFO scientist who is interviewed for the piece. They eloquently describe their experiences with how red tape impeded their ability to do their jobs (what I’ve spent alot of time on this blog focusing on), as well as highlight the problems related to pouring time and resources into training someone and then cutting their program and letting them go.

Thanks to Sam Fenn and the rest of the gang at The Terry Project for producing this, and for presenting a fresh angle on the story.

It’s NOT just me…

Apparently, it’s more than just me that feels like something has gone bad in the refrigerator of Government Science.

My union, the Professional Institute of Public Servants, commissioned Environics Research to conduct a survey of it’s Research Scientist members a number of months ago. It’s received a good deal of attention from media outlets. In response to the report which indicates widespread and broad suppression of science in the Federal Government in informing policy, our Minister of Science and Technology responded, “Our government has made record investments in science.” Since he totally disregarded the question in his response, I take this as his acknowledgement that our concerns are valid.

The results of the survey seem to confirm a number of the concerns that I’ve expressed on this blog. You can find a full copy of the report at the bottom of the page here. I’d recommend reading the full environics report that’s also provided on that page as it provides a great deal more details, including specifics relating to individual departments. Neither is very long; 7 and 20 pages each, very easy reading and lots of figures.

In a nutshell, here’s the highlight reel:

90% of federal scientists feel they cannot speak to the media freely about the research they conduct.

74% feel that current communications policies for discussing research with the media are too restrictive.

50-73% are concerned that new policies around publications/data sharing/collaborative agreements will impede their ability to collaborate with colleagues internationally, in both the public and private sector and with academics. We’ve already seen some researchers balk at new data sharing agreements and walk away from collaborations as a result of these changes.

Nearly a quarter of those surveyed said they’d been asked to alter or exclude information for non-scientific reasons.

There are a number of chilling perceptions as well regarding how departmental changes are altering government policy; take that for what you want, since we don’t make the policy, we just try to provide the scientific evidence to inform it.





I like my science unmuzzled

Thanks to Kennedy Stewart for drafting this motion to be presented in the House of Commons (whenever they can actually get back to work…):


Let’s see our government show exactly how much it wants its scientists communicating with the public. Hopefully it will go better than the last time the topic of science came up in the house of commons. I, for one (not surprisingly), would be thrilled if this motion was passed and followed through on.

Update: September 20th, 2013: I just saw the op-ed by David Schindler in the Toronto Star regarding the Stand Up for Science protests that happened on Monday- his piece focuses primarily on government science muzzling, which was one of the focus points of the protests (and the focus of Kennedy’s motion). Very well written, and provides an excellent historic perspective, as well as the risks of keeping your scientists to their speaking points. You can read the op-ed here.