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Open Letter to Canadian Scientists Regarding the Freedom of Government Scientists to Talk About Their Research

Posted by Ted Hsu on February 13, 2012 | No Comments

Ted Hsu

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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  1. Avatar of Ted Hsu Ted Hsu said on

    My question in Question Period on February 13 about muzzling of federal government scientists is here: http://youtu.be/hw0R-RREbCc

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  2. Avatar of Lee Norton Lee Norton said on

    It would be great if we could follow the policies of the NOAA. When the arctic ozone hole above Canada was leaked last October, I had to go to the American NASA website to obtain the required information I wanted as I give climate presentations.

    ps As most of us are ashamed, we don’t call it the Canadian Government anymore. Now it’s call the Harper Government.

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  3. Avatar of Don Girard Don Girard said on

    Not only would I like to see transparency for information our scientists produce and are working on, but I also would like to know who in the industry is also paying them as advisors, speakers or any other connections. Of late we have seen some of our government representatives who are supposed to be there to protect us also being party to the industries they are supposed to be safeguarding us from.

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  4. Avatar of Brian Sanderson Brian Sanderson said on

    Dear Ted, I have a different perspective. The way I see things, all Canadian citizens fund “government” scientists. These scientists are NOT “government scientists”, they are “public scientists”. As such, their published work should be freely and readily available to all Canadian citizens.

    The cost to produce a peer-reviewed scientific publication can be very high when one considers all the costs: salaries, equipment, laboratories, communications, meetings, etc. Most of the costs of the peer-review process are also covered by the taxpayer. Right at the end of the process, we have a relatively tiny cost that is covered by the scientific publisher.

    Tiny is the operative word, the publisher contributes a fraction of a percent of the total cost of a scientific publication. Yet, to cover their expenses and make a profit, the publisher must charge the public for access — even though it was the public who funded 99% of the total cost of the publication.

    The above might have made sense in the relatively unenlightened, pre-internet era — but it is just plain stupid and insulting to the public in the information age. Let’s get past the political posturing and formulate some decent policies that treat the public in a respectful manner — recognizing that they must have free and unrestricted access to the publications that they fund.

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    • Avatar of Leila Paul Leila Paul said on

      Government scientists may be paid by taxpayers but so are politicians. They have amply demonstrated that they do not feel obligated to put taxpayers first, so why should we believe that government scientists will be any more ethical in their practices.

      We have been too tolerant of media spokesperson which is a euphemism for manipulators who know how to distort the content of a message or response to queries.

      We’ve been too tolerant of, e.g., the National Post and Sun Media who use former Conservative MPs or Reform/Alliance party members writing comments and OpEds for their so-called newspapers – our contemporary equivalents and only somewhat less sinister versions of Pravda.

      That’s why this site is so valuable. Here we can ask for what needs asking and say what needs saying.

      And if the oi/tar sands are to be assessed we need verification that all those involved are truly disinterested and competent and courageous in order to get credible results.

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    • Avatar of Ted Hsu Ted Hsu said on

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, in Question Period, the conservatives have been saying that since scientists publish their results, they do get to communicate their research, and so we should not be so upset that they cannot speak freely to journalists and the public about their research. So your point is then relevant: why should taxpayers have to pay a (significant) fee to access the journal articles?

      I’d go further and say that journalists need two things. They need to be able to have a discussion with the scientist, to try to completely understand what the research was about. Students don’t just read textbooks, they interact with teachers and tutors, asking questions, exposing their ignorance, so that they can fill in the gaps in their knowledge. It’s the same thing with journalists interviewing a scientist.

      Second, journalists need timely access. it’s no use to talk to a scientist after your filing deadline has passed. Journalists have been complaining about timely access to Canadian government scientists, and that has diminished their value to the Canadian public.

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      • Avatar of Brian Sanderson Brian Sanderson said on

        Hi Ted, Indeed yes. But would a future Liberal Government consider the fundamental point that I made? Namely, ensuring that publications of government funded research are freely available to the public.

        Your points about journalists having timely access to government scientists is correct, obviously. I would also hope that journalists would have ready access to the relevant scientific literature — because in science, context is just so important!

        Call me an eternal optimist, but given access to serious content, I think that journalistic standards might be improved. (That might not be a good outcome for some other political parties.)

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        • Avatar of Ted Hsu Ted Hsu said on

          Brian,

          The only issue I can see is the copyright that is owned by the journal in which the scientific article is published. They do deserve the $10 or $20 or whatever per copy that goes towards disseminating the published research of Canadian scientists.

          Ted

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          • Avatar of Leila Paul Leila Paul said on

            If it’s in the public interest – the journal or medium of publication can earn the p.r. advantage of having been the venue from which we get trustworthy information.

            Surely, that must be worth something in tangible measures.

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