Who’s better at muzzling scientists: Canada or the U.S.?

Recent revelations at the Cohen Commission that the Prime Minister’s Office muzzled Dr. Kristi Miller, author of a study published in the journal Science on a possible virus affecting B.C.’s Sockeye stocks, has got West Coast thinking about scientific integrity and the efforts in both Canada and the U.S. to control, and to protect, government scientists.  To be clear – it does not appear that the PMO’s actions were directed against Dr. Miller in particular, but rather was the result of a general policy which limited all DFO staff scheduled to testify before the Cohen Commission.

It has, however, become part of the ongoing debate about the role of politicians in restricting the work of their scientific staff.  In both Canada and the U.S. questions about the politicization of science are being actively debated.  The U.S. has recently come through a period of politicization of science, and is engaged in controversial, and to date not entirely successful, efforts to undo those mistakes, while Canada appears to be well on its way to repeating the mistakes made under the previous U.S. administration. 

Searching for scientific integrity

In the U.S., the Administration of George W. Bush was characterized by a dramatic politicization of government agencies, and the side-lining of scientists employed by them.   In 2006 Time Magazine reported that:

[G]rowing numbers of researchers, both in and out of government, say their findings--on pollution, climate change, reproductive health, stem-cell research and other areas in which science often finds itself at odds with religious, ideological or corporate interests--are being discounted, distorted or quashed by Bush Administration appointees. … [I]n the past two years, the Union of Concerned Scientists has collected the signatures of more than 8,000 scientists--including 49 Nobel laureates, 63 National Medal of Science recipients and 171 members of the National Academies--who accuse the Administration of an unprecedented level of political intrusion into their world.

The New York Times and the Washington Post, among other mainstream publications, also reported on the Bush Administration’s muzzling of scientists and interference with the scientific process.

President Obama was elected on a promise to reverse this trend and to restore the integrity of science within government.  In March 2009 the President issued a policy directive highlighting the importance of scientific integrity, and promising the development of policies to ensure that government scientists can exercise that integrity:

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.  Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions.  If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.  To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking.  The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

With that eloquent defence of the need for scientific integrity in the public service, the President charged the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop “recommendations for Presidential action designed to guarantee scientific integrity.”

This process has been controversy filled.  There were major delays in unveiling the “Presidential action”, during which time one report quoted government scientists as saying that little had improved since the Bush Administration.  When the long awaited recommendations were unveiled, they were criticized as vague and contradictory while setting no timetable for implementing the rules.” 

Just within the last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled its own draft Scientific Integrity Policy, intended to implement the direction from the President, which has faced similar criticisms.

“EPA has put forward by far the weakest scientific integrity rules of any agency. In many ways, it is a big step backward,” said Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) Executive Director Jeff Ruch in [a] news release. “Under EPA’s plan to protect scientific integrity, only its scientists can be punished for misconduct as there are no firm rules against managers manipulating or masking technical work and no mechanism to enforce rules if they existed.”

Clearly, establishing rules that both government agencies and their scientist employees feel comfortable with has been troubling.  Recently there have been allegations that the investigation of Charles Monnett’s Polar Bear Research represents a repeat of tactics seen under the Bush Administration.  

Meanwhile, while the Obama Administration is attempting – however inadequately – to restore public faith in government science, it is not at all clear that all elected representatives are on the same page, with concerns being expressed about the attitude of some elected officials – primarily Republicans – towards climate science, evolution and other well established scientific theory.

Meanwhile in Canada

Meanwhile in Canada there are a large number of very disturbing instances of the federal government taking steps which seem on their face to silence government scientists, or to restrict funding to scientists whose research is at odds with the government’s political agenda.  In addition to the muzzling of Dr. Miller, examples include:

  • Marginalizing and ultimately eliminating the office of National Science Adviser, replacing it with the Science, Technology and Innovation Council, a mix of industry representatives, scientists, civil servant and university administrators. 
  • Adopting a sweeping policy requiring government scientists to communicate with media through the government’s communications department.  As CBC news put it: “all media inquiries to scientists working for Natural Resources Canada must now pass through a Byzantine thicket of “subject matter experts” and the Minister's director of communications — “no exceptions.”  Not surprisingly, the new policy has given rise to accusations that the scientists are being muzzled.  Although the government insists that this measure is not intended to prevent media interviews with government scientists, it is reported that this policy has had such an effect
  • Undertaking a “troubling catalogue of actions” against climate scientists, according to the Climate Action Network, from the appointment of climate skeptics to advisory positions, to blocking a senior Environment Canada scientist from travelling to a World Meteorological Organization committee meeting that was organizing an international climate change conference.

These stories individually raise questions.  Collectively they raise alarm bells.  As a result of many of these developments, the journal Nature wrote a scathing editorial, Science in retreat, referring the to Canadian government’s “manifest disregard for science” and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada launched a website, publicscience.ca, to highlight the important role of scientists in the Canadian government in response to many of these developments.

How to support our scientists

There are real questions about the effectiveness of the Obama Administration’s efforts to encourage and support their scientists.  However, at least such policies are on the table in the United States. 

Here in Canada the increased politicization of public science seems to be on the rise.  While a communications policy limiting the ability of scientists to speak may make sense politically, what we really need is a scientific policy that affirms the important role of publicly employed scientists and protects their independence and ability to speak freely and publicly. 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer