Canadian scientists should be free to speak their minds

Canadians have a right to an opportunity to know more about our scientists’ work and how their research affects our lives.

Earlier this month, one of the world’s most prestigious science journals, Nature, published an editorial that, well, is embarrassing for Canada. Moving off the science message, it hit Canadian politics right on the nose when it called into question the Harper government’s policy of limiting what government-employed scientists can say publicly about their research.

Good on the Nature scribes.

Since coming to power, Prime Minister Harper has demonstrated a spectacular trait for control about who says what to whom under his watch. For a while, he followed the lead of President George Bush whose administration also had a penchant for silencing U.S. government scientists, making front page news in the process. But with the election of President Obama, sanity was restored and a policy of integrity established for how scientists could respond when approach by journalists. It opened up opportunities for scientists to not only speak directly on their research topic but gave them the freedom to go off-script and express their personal views while making it clear they weren’t speaking on behalf of their agency. That’s a whole new level of openness.

PM Harper, to the contrary, is muzzling this country’s scientists in a counterproductive manner that is anything but open.

“Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge,” stated the editorial in Nature.

Scientists, journalists and science writers in Canada are frustrated. The current protocol is that federal scientists cannot speak to reporters without the so-called ‘consent’ of media relations officers who often, after time delays, request written questions in advance while scientists work in an atmosphere of political messaging. This stalling tactic does nothing to help a journalist’s deadline nor does it help researchers’ frustrations trying to get their message out, something I know from experience they are always eager to do.

Clearly fed up with this, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, the World Federation of Science Journalists and other groups and organizations wrote a letter to PM Harper last month urging him to unmuzzle scientists and allow them to provide the free flow of research information of importance and interest to the public. They are launching a campaign to push for timely and open access to federally funded scientists, researchers whose work and sometimes leading-edge findings are underwritten by the taxpayer.

The contribution of science to accurate, long range policy-making is invaluable but it can sometimes be an uneasy alliance. To fix that, Prof. William Sutherland with the Conservation Science Group, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge in the U.K. recently brought together 52 leading scientists and policy makers from around the world (including Canada) to set out a formula as the basis for a research agenda to improve the mutual understanding and effectiveness of those who work at the interface of science and policy. They came from a wide range of academic disciplines as well as government, NGOs, and industry.

The results were documented in the paper ‘A Collaboratively-Derived Science-Policy Research Agenda’ by Sutherland and colleagues published in the on-line journal PloS One. Now that’s pro-activism at work.

Many Canadian scientists are world-renowned and respected among their peers for expertise in topics like climate, agriculture, environment, energy, engineering, health care, nanotechnology, etc. Their research can translate into policies affecting food production, conservation, mitigation for climate change, energy solutions, and cures for infectious diseases.

Canadians have a right to an opportunity to know more about our scientists’ work and how their research affects our lives. Equally important, scientists should have the freedom to share their knowledge with the public.