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Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Should government scientists be restricted in their public communications?

by Katie Gibbs

Three things to know about government scientists' communications:

1.  Government scientists’ ability to communicate with the public has become more restricted in recent years. There have been many examples where government scientists could not discuss their research with journalists, and a survey of government scientists showed that 90% do not feel they can speak freely about their research. 

2.  This report, the first assessment of media policies for government scientists in Canada, shows that policies do not promote open science communication, nor protect against political interference.

3.  Media policies for scientists in Canada are far more restrictive than our neighbours to the South: U.S. policies received an average grade of a 69% in 2008 and 75% in 2013, compared to the 2014 Canadian average of 55%.

Three myths about government scientists' communications::

Myth 1: Government communication policies are only important for scientists.

Reality: Open science communication is important for all Canadians. Current media policies could prevent taxpayer-funded scientists from sharing their expertise on important issues, ranging from drug policy to climate change. A healthy democracy requires open communication and informed public debate.

Myth 2: All federal scientists are subject to the same media policy.

Reality: While there is a government-wide communication policy, most departments have developed their own policies that differ greatly in how well they promote open science communication (ranging from B- to F).

Myth 3: Departments with the most complaints of government scientists being muzzled have the worst media policies.

Reality: Many examples of scientists who have been prevented from communicating their research have come from Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. These departments scored in the mid-range compared with other departments. The highest scoring department was, in fact, the department of National Defence.

Katie Gibbs is a biologist, community organizer and advocate for science and evidence-based policies. She’s the co-founder and Executive Director of Evidence for Democracy, a national, non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that promotes science integrity and the transparent use of evidence in government decision-making. 

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