Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Writers want Ottawa to let scientists 'speak for themselves'

Last year, Kathryn O'Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association, wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the other national parties.

In that document – remarkable because it was written in a leading democracy not a paranoid dictatorship – she pleaded with government to unshackle its scientists by allowing them to speak freely with the media.

The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O'Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.

Story continues below advertisement

Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has done groundbreaking work on emerging salmon diseases on the West Coast, was one of those who was denied permission to talk to the media, even though her research had just been published in the prestigious international journal, Science.

The government's stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.

"We urge you to free the scientists to speak – be it about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change," Ms. O'Hara wrote. "Take off the muzzles and eliminate the script writers and allow scientists – they do have PhDs after all – to speak for themselves."

The government did not change its policy. The standard operating procedure still requires that all media requests for interviews be vetted through public affairs officials in Ottawa. Sometimes, scientists are cleared to speak – often they are not.

Contrast that with the "scientific integrity policy" adopted last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States.

NOAA's new guidelines – which make it clear scientists can speak about their work any time, to anyone – flowed from a memo President Barack Obama sent to the heads of executive departments in 2009. In that missive, he affirmed his support for transparency in government and urged directors to foster a culture of scientific integrity.

"The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions," he wrote.

Story continues below advertisement

"Science, and public trust in science, thrives in an environment that shields scientific data and analyses from inappropriate political influence," John Holdren, assistant to the President for science and technology stated in a later memo. He said the purpose of the initiative was to "strengthen the actual and perceived credibility of government research."

NOAA's response is an explicit policy that states "scientists may speak freely with the media and public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work without approval from the public-affairs office or their supervisors."

Policy guidelines inform staff that if they wish to go beyond talking about their research, and express opinion, they have two choices. They can submit statements of opinion to NOAA's legal and legislative affairs staff which may, after a lengthy process, issue it as government policy. Or they can simply put on the record that they are speaking as individuals.

"We all have the right to express our opinions publicly on our own time as private citizens. … Thus, your second option is that you will just need to provide a disclaimer indicating you are expressing your opinion and not the opinion of NOAA," the agency guidelines state.

Talk about being unshackled. All a scientist has to do to express a personal view related to his or her research is to say, "this is my opinion, not government policy."

The policy is now in force in the U.S.

Story continues below advertisement

In Canada, government scientists who want to talk to the media still have to get permission from public-relations officials, who can silence anyone they want.

As Mr. Obama made clear, such an approach calls into question the integrity of science – and the credibility of government.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.