Muzzling Science

Over at DeSmogBlog, Ross Gelbspan has an article titled Is Canadian Government Muzzling the Messengers? about the Canadian Government’s new rules governing when and how climate scientists can speak to the media.

Since the introduction of the new rules governing how environment Canada scientists speak to media, the article claims there has been an 80% reduction in stories about climate science.

The post links to an article in the Montreal Gazette that looks into the issue: Climate-change scientists feel ‘muzzled by Ottawa’: Documents:

OTTAWA — 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.”

The analysis reviewed the impact of a new federal communications policy at Environment Canada, which required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews.

In many cases, the policy also required them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview, said the document, obtained in an investigation into the government’s views and policies on global-warming science that was conducted by Climate Action Network Canada, a coalition of environmental groups.

Now, as a government employee, I do get requests for information from media and interviews, but I am not the one to do them. Our executive director is the person who conducts media interviews so there are these kinds of rules governing most ministries, I imagine. Climate scientists who work for government are still government employees and they are expected to be seen as implementing the government’s agenda and policies. Hence, if there is some concern over whether the appropriate message will be provided to media, you can expect that there will be some effort to control who speaks on behalf of the government. That’s the way it is.

Is that the right way to do things? I’ll let the reader decide. I have a conflict of interest in this since I am a government employee.

Here is more from that article:

The Environment Canada analysis noted that four prominent scientists, who regularly spoke for the government on climate change science issues, appeared in only 12 newspaper clippings in the first nine months of 2008, compared with 99 clippings over the same period in 2007.

“There is a widespread perception among Canadian media that our scientists have been ‘muzzled’ by the media relations policy,” said the Environment Canada document. “Media coverage of this perception, which originated with a Canwest story in February 2008, is continuing, with at least 47 articles in Canadian newspapers to date.”

The document also noted that government scientists voiced their displeasure to communications officials about the policy during meetings in June 2008. A few months later, a couple of requests for interviews with scientists in the midst of the 2008 federal election campaign were never answered, including one request that was “denied” after it was forwarded to the office of former environment minister John Baird.

I remember reading a similar article about the Bush admin muzzling climate scientists in the USA. This Washington Post article, “Climate Findings Were Distorted” sounds surprisingly similar:

From the fall of 2004 through 2006, the report said, NASA’s public affairs office “managed the topic of climate change in a manner that reduced, marginalized, or mischaracterized climate change science made available to the general public.” It noted elsewhere that “news releases in the areas of climate change suffered from inaccuracy, factual insufficiency, and scientific dilution.”

Officials of the Office of Public Affairs told investigators that they regulated communication by NASA scientists for technical rather than political reasons, but the report found “by a preponderance of the evidence, that the claims of inappropriate political interference made by the climate change scientists and career public affairs officers were more persuasive than the arguments of the senior public affairs officials that their actions were due to the volume and poor quality of the draft news releases.”

I don’t have to mention how important crude oil and gas are to the Canadian economy,  do I?

And with Peak Oil approaching – 2014 according to the latest research, that means Canadian tar sands will be worth even more.

That might be quite the incentive to control the message on global warming…

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About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

11 Responses to “Muzzling Science”

  1. SheWonk, I know scientists who work for Environment Canada. They are definitely being muzzled and scared sh1tless of saying anything in an official capacity on AGW, and some even as a a private citizen. Even if they did want to comment to the press at a government scientist, would have to go though goodness knows how many levels of bureaucracy to get approval, and then it is edited/filtered so as not to “embarrass” the minister. All fields of science are being muzzled, and it extends to AQ and pollution monitoring as well, for example. The ‘message’ is very tightly controlled, even manipulated.

    Truly scary. Rumor has it that Harper government also ordered thousands of Kyoto/climate change information pamphlets to be destroyed. Good luck trying to get a government employee to spill the beans though.

    Again, the scientists are scared, intimidated, frustrated, even depressed about the situation.

  2. Meanwhile deniers get to say whatever they want, unmuzzled, but more importantly, uncritiqued.

  3. MapleLeaf :

    SheWonk, I know scientists who work for Environment Canada. They are definitely being muzzled and scared sh1tless of saying anything in an official capacity on AGW, and some even as a a private citizen. Even if they did want to comment to the press at a government scientist, would have to go though goodness knows how many levels of bureaucracy to get approval, and then it is edited/filtered so as not to “embarrass” the minister. All fields of science are being muzzled, and it extends to AQ and pollution monitoring as well, for example. The ‘message’ is very tightly controlled, even manipulated.

    Truly scary. Rumor has it that Harper government also ordered thousands of Kyoto/climate change information pamphlets to be destroyed. Good luck trying to get a government employee to spill the beans though.

    Again, the scientists are scared, intimidated, frustrated, even depressed about the situation.

    Civil servants know that their role is to advise and assist the government of the day to implement its policy. They provide the best summary of the relevant science and the options and the costs/benefits, and it is up to the elected representatives to decide. Government scientists are not the one who determines policy. The elected representatives do. They have the legitimate right to do so, although in the case of a minority government as we have in Canada, the government has to tread very lightly due to their need to form alliances in order to keep power.

    Scientists for EC have an obligation to do the best science and advise on the best science and at the same time, they are not necessarily the spokespeople for the government or the ones to convey the government’s message. This puts government scientists in a difficult position if they disagree with the policy. I was told by a former employer that there are always reasons to fire people – always. So as a civil servant, you have to watch your ass if you want to keep your job. Otherwise, it’s academia or the private sector, or non-profit sector. That’s the price of being a civil servant. If you can’t stand to be part of it you have to resign.

    That’s reality.

  4. I do want to add that I don’t think it should be this way — but that’s the way it is and until we devise a different way to do things, that’s the reality. However, a government scientist should be able to write and tell the truth about the science he or she does without fear of reprisal.

    No government bureaucrat should be able to change science documents to hide or obscure the facts — that’s unethical. Personally, I wonder if it isn’t a bad idea to have government employees doing science, given this often contradictory role.

  5. SheWonk, thanks for your reply and thoughts, I sure was glad to see that follow up comment. I think that you may have just posted at Joe Romm’s site. If so, I agree whole heartedly with your sentiments expressed there.

    SheWonk “I was told by a former employer that there are always reasons to fire people – always. So as a civil servant, you have to watch your ass if you want to keep your job. ”

    That is what I have heard too, or they will make your life so difficult/miserable that you’ll resign.

    “Scientists for EC have an obligation to do the best science and advise on the best science and at the same time, they are not necessarily the spokespeople for the government or the ones to convey the government’s message. ”

    Agreed. However, should the media contact a scientists on an important issue s/he should feel free to speak the truth and state the facts as indicated by the science. They should not have to spin the facts nor should they have to decline an interview. Also, if they as a private citizen wish to protest or sign a petition about government policy, should they not be free to do that in an unofficial capacity? Right now, many government scientists are so intimidated that they won’t get involved at a civic or community level.

    As Susann stated at ClimateProgress:

    “When faced with research that threatens the agenda, it’s all too easy to strategically cut funding and decimate programs, revise reports or hide them on some back shelf so that the adverse message doesn’t get out or conflict with the agenda.”

    That is exactly what has been happening under Harper, and someone needs to call him on it.

    • Frankly, I seriously think science should be kept out of government. Not that I doubt the integrity of government scientists, but I know how easy it is for officials and political hacks to hide or alter inconvenient evidence, cut funding for tactical reasons, and not publish negative findings if they conflict with the current government’s agenda.

      Just take science completely out of government – keep it completely arm’s length and then make politicians have to justify ignoring science when formulating policy.

      Sent from my iPhone

  6. Hi SheWonk,

    I agree, but I do not think it would be that simple. What, for example, the role of think tanks became prevalent? I would not want Fraser Institute advocating “science” for environmental issues, not would I want Pembina advocating science for something in which they have a vested interest.

    Right now, much of the research comes from Academia, but they simply do not have the means to run an ice breaker for example. Such projects are only feasible when operated by a network of scientists from both government and academia. Right now, academia are becoming increasingly dependent on funding from private groups, and that is not good either, b/c Syncrude for example, is not exactly impartial when it comes to funding projects. The nice thing about government funding is that the research is done on behalf of the citizens of the country. IMHO, I think that the government of the day needs to be held accountable and has to ensure that there will be a reliable source of funding to ensure that scientists can do their work properly and thereby serve the interest of Canadian citizens properly without having to cater to lobby groups, think tanks or big business to get funds.

    I’m not saying your idea is bad, I guess no matter what we do there exists the potential for conflict of interest. IMHO, the government/academic mix is the best way to go, we just have to figure out a way to stop the government from meddling too much in the science, and let the facts and science speak for themselves and then without reproach.

    • Agreed on the need for funding but I would like to see it more at arm’s length – not in ministries directly beholden to government. Maybe like the Prov Or Federal Auditor General that has as a mandate providing objective fact based info for use in formulating public policy. There are so many ways that bias can perculate into government research that there needs to be distance between funding source and operations. All a gov has to do is cut budgets or steer research in a specific direction to get desired results.

      Anyway, BAU is not good enough IMO.

      Sent from my iPhone

  7. SheWonk,

    Good ideas. Is there anything that can be done now?

  8. Governments are interested in two things: getting elected and staying in power. Anything that affects those two things matters to them. Public pressure on government through MPs, media campaigns, exposure of the issue in wider forums. If this was high on the public agenda and the public were actively involved emailing and calling their MPs, governments would be more inclined to listen but as long as it is a low public priority and a low party priority, it will stay in the background and can be slowly eroded without much notice.

    It’s not that Canadians don’t accept that AGW is real or a threat. An Angus-Reid poll shows that 60% of Canadians who support Liberal, NDP, BQ, and Green parties believe global warming is real and a threat, and caused by GHGs, only 39% of Conservatives do. There’s the rub. Most Canadians did not follow Climategate and so it had no real effect on their perception of the issue. It does give governments another reason to delay and drag heels.

    I’m afraid Joe Romm is right — there has to be some kind of climate event of significance to make action on GHGs more politically viable given all the conflicts of interest the government has and the lack of political appetite for action.

  9. It looks as if Americans are less concerned than previously about global warming.

    A recent Gallup poll shows that the percent of Americans who think global warming is occurring fell from 65% in 2006, 2007, and 2008 to 52% in 2010. I imagine that would be much higher among Dems and Independents and much less among Republicans. Sadly, Americans are virtually split on whether it is natural or man-made — again, I bet there would be clear differences based on political identity.

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