On November 4, 2015, Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party was sworn in as Prime Minister of Canada. Less than 48 hours later, the new administration announced it was ending restrictions on federal scientists’ public communications.
The previous Conservative government, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, tightly vetted communications from all federal workers, including government scientists. The Economist wrote in 2013 that “[f]rom the government’s point of view this approach has worked splendidly, with politicians and officials delivering a uniform message” but “scientists and the union representing them have complained mightily.” Nature also published an editorial criticizing the Harper government’s stance, noting that “Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information [requests] reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.” Maclean’s wrote that “[w]ith the muzzling of scientists, Harper’s obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian.”
Department of Fisheries and Oceans geneticist Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders, who had previously been hampered in communicating about her research on wild salmon, said the policy change was “very exciting news . . . . I was terribly embarrassed at having to decline numerous opportunities to speak about my research. What was perhaps even more frustrating was when stories went ahead about research I had published without [the reporter] being able to speak to me personally, and either got some of the important facts wrong or over-interpreted the science, and I was not able to speak out to correct them.”
Details of the new policy are still being worked out, but the Liberal Party has announced that it “will appoint a Chief Science Officer who will ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.” It appears there will also be individual departmental requirements for scientists under the new policy: for example, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans director noted that scientists will be asked to make note of the media communication “so we know what communication has taken place.”
A similar change also happened in the United States under President Barack Obama; upon taking office in 2009, President Obama ordered all heads of federal agencies to increase public access to federally-funded scientific research and to “make available as much information as possible.” But this is not to say that U.S federal scientists have complete freedom to communicate with the media and public: a 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that while many U.S. agencies “had substantially improved their policies since 2008, significant issues remained.” The report particularly criticized a lack of clarity, and found that “many agencies still do not have written policies that afford their scientists the basic right to speak freely.”
Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to protect the scientific endeavor. For more information, please visit www.climatesciencedefensefund.org