Dear Misters Harper, Ignatieff, Layton, and Duceppe, and Ms May:
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) represents science journalists, communicators, publicists and authors—500 and growing. For almost a year now, the CSWA has pushed for changes in the government’s current communication policy to enable timely access to government scientists who have published studies and research in journals. We have documented numerous examples of instances where Canadian journalists have been denied access to government scientists doing research in areas of public interest. The problem is relatively new in Canada, although not unknown. It became critical with new rules and regulations instituted by the Harper government. The CSWA has attempted to work with high-level, senior public servants, those who act as champions of science, to restore journalists’ access to science experts in the federal government. We are frustrated by our lack of progress.
Every year, several billion dollars of tax-payers’ money is invested in made-in-Canada research—from genetically altered life forms, to promising forms of clean energy. We assert that the taxpaying Canadian public has a right to know about the science they pay for and what it can tell us about our health, safety, and the world in which we live. The findings and benefits of scientific and medical research should be available to all Canadians to enable engaged public policy awareness, debate and development.
All political parties repeatedly make promises to promote government openness and accountability. It is in this spirit that we ask you, our party leaders, to tell us and the public how you would guarantee freer channels of communication.
We want to know because the current Harper government’s restricted access to information impedes the public’s right to know about the research and studies it funds. We know that many reporters no longer try to get interviews from government experts because requests for interviews are so often stymied, there is an excessively long turn-around time on getting questions answered, and the now typical boilerplate responses are unsatisfactory. This means federal scientists who do the work miss out on the opportunity of getting some public feedback and the public doesn’t learn of the research being done in Canada.
Media requests that used to be handled by government researchers and communication staff across Canada now require an elaborate process of screening and approval in Ottawa that has been described publicly by one scientist as “Orwellian.”
By the time the “media lines” are approved—at considerable expense to taxpayers whose dollars are used to pay for these extra layers of message approval—the journalist’s deadline has usually long passed and the “lines” are never used.
Is communication staff now more compelled to block access to scientists and information than facilitate communication? As a 2010 document by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) put it, in response to an access to information request, the bureaucracy is now working to create a “zero surprise environment” for the Harper government.
The work of federal scientists is important, and it is often described as science done in the public good. These men and women monitor ozone depletion and air pollution. They work to ensure that drugs and medical supplies are safe. They assess which forms of Canadian energy are most promising, and which are most polluting.
We urge you to free the scientists to speak—be it about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change. Take off the muzzles and eliminate the script writers and allow scientists—they do have PhDs after all— to speak for themselves.
Let the federal scientists inform and enliven understanding. They are public servants, doing science for the Canadian public.
Sincerely, on behalf of the CSWA Board of Directors,
Kathryn O’Hara, President
Canadian Science Writers’ Association