Public Values

Union provides online voice for government scientists

Communication restrictions compromise research and progress.

Corbett: Muzzling scientists working for public good threatens citizen safety, undermines democracy.OTTAWA, ON, February 17, 2012: The union that represents 23,000 Canadian federal scientists and researchers provides, through a webcast, open access to a unique panel session featuring scientists and journalists entitled Unmuzzling Government Scientists. The panel was part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual conference in Vancouver. The AAAS is the world's largest science society.

"We believe that muzzling scientists who work for the public good threatens the safety of all Canadians, and undermines our democracy and our country's ability to meet its full potential," says Gary Corbett, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.

In an opinion piece published earlier this week, Corbett also calls attention to cuts to government science as well as the danger posed by the current government's disdain for evidence-based decision-making.

  "Our union does not need government approval to speak up for public science and for the Canadians whose safety depends on it."

Corbett adds, "Government scientists are between a rock and a hard place — their ability to do their jobs and protect Canadians is compromised by disappearing resources, a lack of support from their employer and their inability to communicate. Our union does not need government approval to speak up for public science and for the Canadians whose safety depends on it."

Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Discourse was a panel organized by the Canadian Science Writers' Association (CSWA) and the Association des Communicateurs Scientifiques du Qu├ębec (ACS), featuring Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, and Postmedia News journalist Margaret Munro.

Across Canada, journalists are being denied access to publicly funded scientists and the research community is frustrated with the way government scientists are being muzzled. Some observe that it is part of a trend that has seen the Canadian government tighten control over how and when federal scientists interact with the media. As a result, media inquiries are delayed, and scientists are less present in coverage of research in Canada.

In 2008, Environment Canada ordered its scientists to refer all media queries to Ottawa, where communications officers and strategists would decide if the scientist could respond and help craft "approved media lines".

Stories written for the CBC, Postmedia news, the journal Nature and others have then revealed how these communication restrictions had spread to other government departments.

And the situation is somewhat similar in the United States. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review details how restrictive practices established by George W. Bush's administration still hold under the current government.

This panel provided an occasion better to understand the friction between the media and the governments.

Are the tightened communication strategies symptomatic of a worldwide trend in public and private sectors? Are they justified?

How do obstructions in communications with scientists compromise science research progression and undermine democracy? And in the end, what can be done to improve the situation?

Related individuals, organizations and significant events
To watch the webinar, click here.

Links and sources
  Muzzling of Canadian government scientists on agenda at top international science conference
  Unmuzzling government scientists

Posted: February 29, 2012

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