The Conservative government only undermines itself by restricting the ability of federally employed scientists to communicate freely with the public and the media. It feeds suspicion, suggesting that Canada has something to hide, for example, on such controversial matters as the oil sands – wrongly or rightly.
Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American organization, and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada sent Prime Minister Stephen Harper an open letter strongly recommending that Canada no longer insist that government scientists get the permission of a media relations officer before they speak to journalists. Fifteen thousand or so researchers are said to be affected by such rules. There were 800 signatories – Canadian government researchers themselves did not sign it.
The PIPSC rhetorically exaggerates when it repeatedly says that government scientists are "muzzled." But in November, 2007, the Conservatives did lay down a rule that any media interview with Environment Canada scientists would be "co-ordinated" by communications staff. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Department of Natural Resources, among other agencies, have followed suit.
"Muzzling" is not a self-explanatory word. A valuable paper from Democracy Watch on this matter sets out some case studies. For instance, David Tarasick of Environment Canada and others wrote a paper in 2011, which appeared in one of the world's most respected scientific journals, Nature, saying there had been an extraordinary loss in the ozone layer over the Arctic. Nobody in government got in the way of its publication, so it cannot be said that Dr. Tarasick was silenced. This was not a case of Galileo, the motion of the heavenly bodies and the Inquisition.
Nonetheless, "media relations" did get in the way of direct, effective engagement with reporters who might have been able to translate scientific language into news stories adapted for the general public. Other episodes showed the same pattern.
It is one thing for cabinet ministers and MPs to work with communication staffs in order to keep the government's messages consistent and coherent, in accordance with cabinet solidarity. It is quite another to insist that thousands of researchers communicate through legions of flacks. That inevitably creates bottlenecks.
Some PR people are often skillful, but not many are well-versed in science. Direct conversations between scientists and journalists are more convenient and informative – and they remove suspicions of censorship, too.