Federal policies block communication on everything from drugs to climate: report

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, commander Canadian Joint Operations Command, speaks to the media in Wainwright, Alta., in May 2013. ~ PHOTO by SGT. MATTHEW MCGREGOR/COMBAT CAMERA

Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, commander Canadian Joint Operations Command, speaks to the media in Wainwright, Alta., in May 2013.
~ PHOTO by SGT. MATTHEW MCGREGOR/COMBAT CAMERA

The Harper government’s preoccupation with message control has earned several federal departments a failing grade for communication.

report released Wednesday by researchers at Simon Fraser University and the non-profit group Evidence for Democracy gives the best mark – a B – to National Defence while the Canadian Space Agency, Public Works and Government Services, Industry Canada, and Natural Resources Canada all received an F.

“I was very surprised to see the department of National Defence score so high,” says Arne Mooers, a biodiversity professor at Simon Fraser University and adviser on the report that says several other departments could learn from the military’s direct approach.

The report assessed the media policies in 16 federal departments and found most of them seriously deficient.

“Overwhelmingly, current media policies do not effectively support open communication between federal scientists and the media,” says the report, that points to the importance of scientists being able to share information and expertise on everything from drug safety to climate change.

“When federal scientists are prevented from communicating their work, it denies the public access to vital information required for informed decisions,” it says. “Perhaps more pressing, however, is the fact that when the public cannot access this information, it is increasingly difficult to determine whether government decisions are being supported by the best available science.”

Canadian Space Agency

The report calls for the government to adopt policies more in-line with those in the U.S., where government scientists can – and often do – pick up the phone and answer journalists’ questions without first having to ask for permission and approval.

“These are the experts, and the public needs access to these experts to discuss the issues of the day,” says Mooers, noting that federal scientists are professionals who can and should be trusted to field queries about their work. “I see no reason why that shouldn’t happen here, just as it happens in the United States.”

He and his colleagues at Evidence for Democracy (E4D), a non-profit promoting evidence-based public policy, decided to compare the departments’ policies because of concern and controversy over the federal government’s restrictive media policies that have been silencing  federal scientists. Postmedia News and other media have documented several cases where federal scientists have not been permitted to discuss their studies on prehistoric floods, salmon health and Arctic ozone.

Environment Canada scientist

The government has repeatedly said it is “not muzzling” or silencing scientists but the federal information commissioner has launched a formal investigation into a complaint filed by Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria that the government has been obstructing “the right of the media – and through them, the Canadian public – to timely access to government scientists.” That report is expected in coming months.

Katie Gibbs, executive director of E4D and co-author of Wednesday’s report, says that even the government’s  media policies and guidelines proved hard to get a hold of with the researchers filing access-to-information requests to obtain the documents from all but two of the 16 departments.

The documents show many departments, such as Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, now require scientists to obtain approval from media relations officers before they can speak with journalists. At the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Public Works, the media guidelines go even farther stipulating that media officers monitor interviews and “intervene when need be,” says the CFIA guideline.

Can scientists speak? A new report auditing 16 different federal bodies gives them an average grade of C for their openness and transparency on communicating scientific findings to the public.

At Natural Resources Canada, the report says the media guidelines “emphasize message control and place restrictions on who may interact with the media. Media relations will develop messages together with the spokesperson and communications managers; approval is then required from the Minister’s Director of Communications and, in some cases, from the Privy Council Office,” an arm of the prime minister’s office.

“Only the department of National Defence does not require that scientists get preapproval before connecting with media,” says the report.

The report says none of the policies examined include “explicit provisions for scientists to have the final review of the scientific content of media products that make use of their research, something which is necessary to ensure their work is accurately communicated.” And it says most of the policies do not offer enough protection for scientists’ right to free speech, or for whistleblowers.

Twitter.com/margaretmunro

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