Posted by: climatewonk | February 12, 2008

Muzzling Science

Scientists should not use their positions of authority to push particular policy positions — that seems a no-brainer. If a scientist favours a particular policy option, they should be able to speak as individuals and make sure that they claify that they are doing so. Policy is properly the realm of politics, and the people elect representatives to institute policy that is in their best interests.  Scientists should not be the ones determining policy, but good science should be the basis for development of policy options. This doesn’t mean that science will necessarily win out over politics: a government may decide that because of economic realities, some policies — even those with sound science foundations — are not in the best interest of the society. I can’t say anything about particular mitigation policies with respect to global warming because I am not up to speed yet on the science or the policies. However, I do think that we can’t have scientists developing policies and mixing up the two disciplines — scientists should try to do good science and advise policy analysts and makers about the science. Let the wonks do the wonking.

However, I also think that if we have such rules for the way scientists act and how science is undertaken, so too should we have them for governments and politicians. 

In my view, governments and politicians should not mess with science and try to conform its research and findings to suit a particular political ideology or objective.  Science should be free to go where its research leads.  If governments do not like the findings, they should just admit it and develop policy regardless.  Stifling science, preventing scientists from speaking to the public about their work, wordsmithing scientific reports to make them conform to the political agenda, are just as verboten as scientists interfering in the political realm. 

There is a story in Canada’s National Post about the Canadian government’s decision to control scientists and their messages .  It looks as though the Harper government is taking a lesson from the Bush Admin in trying to control the scientific message for its own purposes.

Until now, Environment Canada has been one of most open and accessible departments in the federal government, which the executive committee says is a problem that needs to be remedied.

It says all media queries must now be routed through Ottawa where “media relations will work with individual staff to decide how to best handle the call; this could include: Asking the program expert to respond with approved lines; having media relations respond; referring the call to the minister’s office; referring the call to another department,” the presentation says.

Gregory Jack, acting director of Environment Canada’s ministerial and executive services, says scientists and “subject matter experts” will still be made available to speak to the media “on complex and technical issues.” He would not explain how “approved lines” are being written and who is approving them.

Jack said the policy is meant to bring Environment Canada in line with other federal departments, but insists “there is no change in the access in terms of scientists being able to talk.”

He says the intent of the new policy is to respond in a “quick, accurate way that is consistent across Canada.”

The reality, says insiders, is the policy is blocking communication and infuriating scientists. Researchers have been told to refer all media queries to Ottawa. The media office then asks reporters to submit their questions in writing. Sources say researchers are then asked to respond in writing to the media office, which then sends the answers to senior management for approval. If a researcher is eventually cleared to do an interview, he or she is instructed to stick to the “approved lines.”

Climatologist Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria works closely with several Environment Canada scientists. He says the policy points to the Conservative government’s fixation with “micro-management” and message control.

“They’ve been muzzled,” says Weaver of the federal researchers. “The concept of free speech is non-existent at Environment Canada. They are manufacturing the message of science.”

“They can’t even now comment on why a storm hit the area without going through head office,” says Weaver, whose been fielding calls from frustrated media who can no longer get through to federal experts scientists who once spoke freely about their fields of work, be it atmospheric winds affecting airliners or disease outbreaks at bird colonies.

This is unacceptable. The Government obviously is having a hard time accepting science and its findings because those findings interfere with their policy agenda or might make the public question the wisdom of that agenda and so they are silencing the science.

I am inclined to think there is no coincidence that the Harper Government, a conservative government that likes to align itself with Bush, is now undertaking the very same tactics that the Bush Government used against NASA and Hansen.

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