The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada specifies that it is intended “to ensure communications are well co-ordinated, effectively managed and responsive to information needs of the public.” The Policy, implemented by the newly elected government on August 1, 2006, is intended to ensure that government communication with the media and public is both timely and accurate, reflecting both public opinion research and public policies. Research falling under this Policy includes but is not limited to that which is produced by Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, and Health Canada.
In spite of the attempts to streamline the exchange of information, in many cases the Policy served to either delay interviews or have interviews conducted with a media relations spokesperson rather than the expert responsible for the research. An audit of Environment Canada in late 2011 led by Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan found that government scientists “are still not clear” with regards to what they can and cannot say or do at public meetings and in the media.
In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recently passed an Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity. The order explicitly permits NOAA scientists to “freely speak to the media and the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work,” and goes on to explain that “NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints, for example about policy or management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions, but in doing so they must make clear that they are presenting their individual opinions – not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA.” This policy was implemented after a two-month public comment period.
The NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy not only allows scientists to speak freely, but it also reflects support for scientific methods and research. This transparency is crucial for fostering scientific integrity and public trust.
As an opposition Science and Technology critic, and former research physicist, I desire to maximize the benefits that scientific research brings to society. With input from the scientific community, I hope that we can make proposals to re-frame the Communications Policy to allow government scientists to speak freely, if not about policy or management, then at least about their research. This will not only benefit scientific research by expanding its impact and relevance, but will also help the Canadian public and policy-makers to make informed decisions about policies and government decisions based on this publicly funded research.
If you have any comments about the Policy or suggestions for how to improve it, please share your views in the comments below. You can also sign up for Science & Technology updates and I’ll keep you updated on developments.
- Ted Hsu
Liberal Party critic for Science and Technology and Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands
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