The Muzzle Puzzle

‘Whenever you have a filter you are, by definition, losing information.’— Jeff Hutchings, Dalhousie University

Today’s Twittstorm du jour was sparked by a piece in Maclean’s magazine by Professor Andrew Leach on the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists by the Harper Government. The heart of his argument is this passage:

For me, the key questions are whether government researchers should, themselves, be able to speak out when they feel a government policy does not align with the evidence and, if so, why we would only restrict that to a particular class of government researchers? To speak out publicly against government policy is, by the current definition, fundamentally at odds with the role of a public servant in our democracy. Public servants are expected to provide impartial advice to the policy development process and loyal implementation of government policies once decisions are taken. They are not supposed to critique that policy publicly when it doesn’t align with their interpretation of the evidence or their beliefs with respect to how that evidence should be weighed. Allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or any other criteria – turns the relationship between the bureaucracy and their democratically elected masters on its head, undermining the trust essential to an effective working relationship.

On the one hand, this argument is well-rooted in the traditions of parliamentary democracy we inherited from Britain and the new tightened rules on media accessibility introduced the government in 2007 were intended to address this problem.

On the other hand, what problem? It’s an especially odd position since the Tories came to power advocating the opposite:

Yet the No. 1 policy statement for government communications, according to Treasury Board, is to “Provide the public with timely, accurate, clear, objective and complete information about its policies, programs, services and initiatives.”

The directive is part of the “Communications policy of the Government of Canada,” posted on the Treasury Board website and dated Aug. 1, 2006, months after the Conservatives came to power.

The policy calls on public servants to speak “openly” with Canadians.

“Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility,” says the document.

“Openness in government promotes accessibility and accountability. It enables informed public participation in the formulation of policy, ensures fairness in decision making and enables the public to assess performance.”

So what changed? Why the volte-face? Was there a sudden rebellion by federally-employed scientists that required a change to the previous rules? Did, for example, Professor David Schindler cross this line? Leach doesn’t allege so. If yes, no one has provided any compelling argument this was a demonstrable, large-scale problem.

At this point, we should probably examine what the real-world consequence were of the new media rules.

Exhibit A:

But in a message sent to its employees this week, Environment Canada said it had denied interviews with scientists in 22 per cent of the 316 media requests received since the beginning of 2013.

Exhibit B:

A dramatic reduction in Canadian media coverage of climate change science issues is the result of the Harper government introducing new rules in 2007 to control interviews by Environment Canada scientists with journalists, says a newly released federal document.

“Scientists have noticed a major reduction in the number of requests, particularly from high-profile media, who often have same-day deadlines,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent.

Exhibit C: 

Braithwaite and her colleagues — aware of the national and international interest in the shrinking polar ice — wanted to hold a “strictly factual” technical briefing for the media to inform Canadians how the ice had disappeared from not only the Northwest Passage but many normally ice-choked parts of the Arctic.

The briefing never happened. Nine levels of approval — from the director of the ice service up to the environment minister’s office — were needed for the “communication plan,” according to the documents released to Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.

“Ministerial services” — the sixth layer — cancelled the briefing

So the real-world effect of providing just enough of a speed-bump to reporters on deadlines in access to federally employed scientists has been – surprise, surprise – a reduction in media coverage of certain issues which also has the effect of restricting the public’s understanding of both the science and by extension how sound government’s policy is.

Which I would posit, given the Harper Government’s record, is a feature not a bug.

Ah, say Professor Leach, “there are plenty of entities, government-funded and otherwise, that can do a fine job of holding the government to account externally.” Which is a nice thought. But in addition to an era where the Harper government is restricting access of the media to government scientists, we also concurrently live in a era where the Harper government is making life difficult for “other entities” trying to hold the government to account. Specifically providing extra funding to the Canadian Revenue Agency to audit environmental charities who are now self-censoring themselves on public issues. And so on and so forth.

Leach also broaches a better way where government-supported research” could “take place in arms-length agencies” like NASA ( forgetting that despite being at “arms-length” NASA has had war waged against it all the same by the GOP over climate matters).

Finally, I would posit that maybe, just maybe, not all data-collection is the same…

Store economist 1: “I think we should price aggressively. My data suggests this would lead to a dramatic increase in market share.”

Store economist 2: “I disagree. We should maintain our current high margins. This adds an aura of exclusivity to our product line and will be better over the long term….”

Store scientist: “Guys…THE FUCKING STORE IS ON FIRE. WE GOTTA DO SOMETHING OR WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE

An excellent collection of links on this subject at the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

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  1. Pingback: Un-muzzle the scientists: Critics say "Yes, please" - Macleans.ca