THE FOLLOWING LETTER was jointly issued by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and several associations of scientists, science writers and journalists to coincide with the panel entitled “Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-Open the Discourse” at the American Association of Advancement of Science’s 2012 meeting in Vancouver, BC.
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Dear Prime Minister Harper,
Over the past four years, journalists and scientists alike have exposed the disturbing practices of the Canadian government in denying journalists timely access to government scientists. Open letters to your government from concerned journalists have been followed by editorials and public lectures calling for improved access. Still, cases of government muzzling of publicly funded scientists continue.
Last fall, Environment Canada prevented Dr. David Tarasick from speaking to journalists about his ozone layer research, work which had been published in the journal Nature. And earlier, the Privy Council Office stopped Kristina Miller, a researcher at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, from granting interviews about her work – findings that had been published in the journal Science on the causes of sockeye salmon decline in British Columbia.
Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the “consent” of media relations officers. Delays in obtaining interviews are often unacceptable and journalists are routinely denied interviews. Increasingly, journalists have simply given up trying to access federal scientists, while scientists at work in federal departments are under undue pressure in an atmosphere dominated by political messaging.
After several unsuccessful attempts to resolve this issue, our organizations – which represent science journalists and communicators and scientists across Canada and around the world – have agreed to a joint campaign to push for timely and open access to federally funded scientists. Our campaign will use a variety of tools to draw public attention for this issue and to spur your government to tear down the wall that separates scientists, journalists, and the public.
We urge your government to implement a policy of transparent and timely communication, one similar to that introduced in the U.S. recently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This policy now encourages scientists to speak to the media without any intermediary. It even encourages scientists to express their own opinions, provided they indicate that they are speaking personally and not on behalf of the employer.
Many federal scientists are world-renowned experts in areas such as climatology, agriculture, environment, energy solutions, infectious disease, nanotechnology, engineering, and health care. Their important research in support of public health and security, environmental protection, and economic development costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and is valuable to scientists worldwide. Clearly Canadians have the right to learn more about the science they support and to have unfettered access to the expertise of publicly funded scientists.
Prime Minister, we want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.
Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec (ACS)
– Mathieu Robert-Sauvé, President
Association science et bien commun (ASBC)
– Florence Pilon, President
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE)
– Arnold Amber, President
Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA)
– Peter McMahon, President
The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC)
– Gary Corbett, President
World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ)
– Jean-Marc Fleury, Executive Director
TML Weekly Information Project, February 18, 2012 – No. 7