Friday, October 10, 2014

Canadian science departments graded C- for freedom of speech

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian press. A protestor wearing a Grim Reaper costume stands on Parliament Hill during a rally on Tuesday July 10, 2012 in Ottawa to protest the federal government's cuts to science policies.

Federal science departments received an average grade of C- for how well — or poorly, in most cases — their media policies give scientists the freedom to communicate their research, according to a new analysis released Wednesday.

All but one Canadian department received scores worse than those of American science agencies assessed under a comparable set of criteria in 2013.

“There has been a lot of concern in recent years about government scientists facing restrictions in how they can communicate to the public and media,” said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, the non-partisan not-for-profit that produced the report.

“But there hadn’t been any kind of systematic assessment of the communications policies governing scientists in Canada. We thought this would be a useful addition to this discussion.”

Gibbs and Simon Fraser University’s Karen Magnuson-Ford, co-authors of the report and scientists themselves, assessed the media policies of 14 federal science-based departments against a rubric that included whether the policies safeguard against political interference, promote timely communication with reporters, and protect scientific free speech, among other criteria.

Ironically, the researchers were forced to obtain all but two of the policies through freedom of information requests because they were not publicly accessible online.

Twelve of the departments received a grade of C or lower. The Canadian Space Agency, Industry Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Public Works and Government Services Canada all received failing marks.

The best-ranked department was National Defence, which received a B. It was the only one that does not require that scientists ask for pre-approval in order to speak to journalists, the authors found. None of the media policies they obtained explicitly specified that scientists should have final review of the scientific content of department communications that make use of their research.

Reached Tuesday evening and provided with the analysis, a spokesperson for Minister of State for Science and Technology Ed Holder said he could not comment on the specifics of an unpublished report.

“Our government has made record investments in science, technology and innovation,” said Scott French. “Federal scientists are available to share their research with Canadians.” He cited 2,500 media calls fielded by Environment Canada last year and 4,000 published papers from scientists across departments.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada, two departments that have received the strongest volley of accusations of scientist “muzzling,” fared comparatively well: their media policies ranked third and ninth out of 14.

But Gibbs noted that a poll of federal scientists conducted earlier this year on behalf of the union that represents public servants found that Fisheries and Oceans researchers were the least happy with how the ministry broadcasts their work to the public. That same poll found that 91 percent of Environment Canada scientists do not feel they can share concerns based on scientific knowledge without facing censure.

“There is definitely a big difference between policy and practice,” said Gibbs, but added that if scientific freedom of speech is going to improve, “I think it’s going to have to start at the very least with a very clear and explicit communication policy.”

Evidence for Democracy’s analysis was modeled on a similar study conducted by the U.S. Union for Concerned Scientists. After giving American science agencies’ media policies an average score of 70 out of 100 in 2008 and issuing a series of recommendations, the group followed up in 2013 and found a five-point improvement. (The Canadian analysis, which differed slightly from the American one, found an average score of 55).

“We’re trying to look at it as midterm marks rather than a final grade,” said Gibbs.

Torstar News Service

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