Federal scientists should be allowed to speak up

Interesting story from Postmedia’s Margaret Munro this morning on how the Conservatives have moved to tighten control on what scientists in the federal government’s employ can say to reporters. She offers the comical example of how the new rules, which apparently went into force last March for Natural Resources Canada researchers, limited one scientist’s ability to chat with the media about floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

Of course, the government’s aim is to stop scientists from freely providing expert opinion on more topical subjects, such the potential for catastrophic flooding as a result of climate change in this century. Like many reporters, I’ve run into problems when I try to tap the expertise of federal researchers.

For instance, when Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a $5-million study into the feasibility of creating an Arctic marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound last year, I tried to do a few quick interviews with federal biologists who study the sound’s abundant sea birds. But the bird guys told me they were required to go through an approvals process that would have prevented them from talking to me on the record quickly enough to meet my deadline for posting an item on the subject on this website that same day.

Largely as a result of being unable to dredge up explosive quotes about Lancaster Sound’s thick-billed murres and provocative insights into its black-legged kitiwakes, I ended up focusing more closely than I otherwise would have on what Prentice said at his new conference… about his position on global warming.

I guess it’s possible one of the bird scientists I called up might have said something about shrinking Arctic sea ice that the government wouldn’t have appreciated. But so what? Scientists should be able to talk about their work, although the politicians in charge can reasonably ask that they not act as random, freelance critics of legislation and policy.

Here’s what I think makes sense. Scientists employed by the federal government should be allowed to talk whenever they like about their own research, provided their findings have been published in recognized, peer-reviewed journals. They should be required to point out to journalists that their comments don’t represent government policy.

They shouldn’t comment on topics outside their established areas of expertise. The test should be whether they have published those academic papers. Would this lead to only sage comments emanating from government scientists? I’m afraid not. Published scientists sometimes turn out to be outright flakes. Often the broad policy ideas they dream up based on their narrow fields of study are dubious. But that’s hardly a justification for muzzling them.

In my experience, most scientists, in federal agencies and elsewhere, aren’t gifted communicators. The government should lighten up. These are not firebrands, they’re eggheads. It might even help heal the damage done by the Conservatives’ bungled scrapping of the long-form census to announce, sometime soon, an easing of restrictions on when and how federal experts can speak freely.

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