An Update on Muzzled Scientists

Progress on behalf of our beleaguered federal scientists has been made, but more is needed.

There are new developments in the case of muzzled federal scientists. A report indicates that the practice of muzzling has continued at Health Canada. Another story indicates that the Treasury Board wants to keep scientists on a “tight leash”, but I do not find this claim convincing. I also emailed the Office of the Information Commissioner to inquire about their ongoing investigation into muzzling. Details below.

Lab-coated scientists march on Parliament Hill during July 2012’s Death of Evidence rally. (Image source)
Lab-coated scientists march on Parliament Hill during July 2012’s Death of Evidence rally. (Image source)

Health Canada

There is a new report that restrictions on communications with scientists are still in place at Health Canada. Lauren Vogel wrote in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that

“Communications policies adopted under the former Conservative government ‘have not changed,’ according to Health Canada’s chief of media relations, Eric Morrissette.”

The report is surprising in light of the 6 November 2015 statement on Communicating Science from Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. He said

“Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public.”

As I wrote in December, Environment Canada (EC) responded immediately to Minister Bains’s statement by suspending its Media Relations Policy and placing it under review. EC Media relations spokesperson Mark Johnson confirmed for me a few days ago that

“At this time, the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada does remain under review.”

He added

“Environment and Climate Change Canada scientists and experts are available to freely share their research and to discuss their areas of expertise.”

EC should be commended for their openness on this issue.

The federal Liberals promised that scientists would be unmuzzled in their election platform. I’m keeping track of their performance on environment and science commitments, and have changed the status on unmuzzling from “promise kept” to “in progress”. I hope that they move quickly to correct the problems at Health Canada.

Treasury Board

Another report, this time from Toronto Star, indicates that Treasury Board bureaucrats are advocating maintaining a “tight leash” on federal scientists. The story is based on a document prepared for Treasury Board President Scott Brison. I am in contact with the article’s author, and hope to obtain a copy of the document. In this analysis I will rely on quoted passages from the article.

The document says

“It is the legitimate role of politicians to set priorities. In setting priorities for government programs, science is but one factor… While scientists may be disappointed when projects receive less funding or attention, it remains the role of ministers to determine priorities and defend them before the Canadian public.”

To my knowledge, the brief simply articulates what has been standard practice for decades, and certainly long before muzzling became an issue. I have no problem with it. Federal scientists need to provide sound advice to the government of the day, whatever their political pursuasion. It is the responsibility of politicians to derive policy from that advice, taking other factors into account. Scientists and politicians both have clearly defined roles to play.

What scientists want to be able to do – and generally had the right to do before the Harper government – is to be able to speak to reporters and other members of the public about their findings. It is a reasonable expectation that in no way interferes with the politician’s responsibility to set policy. It is also in the best interests of democracy: The public must know the facts in order to hold government to account. The statement quoted from the document does nothing to undermine these principles.

Continuing on, the Treasury Board document also says that existing Government of Canada policy

“encourages public servants to communicate openly with the public.”

Although this point is lampooned in the article, it is factually true. The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada says that it is the policy of the Government of Canada to:

“8. Encourage public service managers and employees to communicate openly with the public about policies, programs, services and initiatives they are familiar with and for which they have responsibility.”

As I discussed in an analysis last December, it is the individual departmental policies – not the overarching Government of Canada policy – that appears to have led to muzzling. In the case of EC, the policy has been suspended. This also appears to be the case for Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Progress is being made.

Minister Brison had this to say about the Treasury Board brief:

“If we want Canadians to trust their government, their government needs to trust them. It also needs to trust public servants to do their job. As a government, we are fully committed to ensuring that government science informs our decisions and that this information is available to the public.”

This suggests to me that Brison “gets it”. Changing the mindset of federal bureaucrats was never going to be easy. I’m willing to cut Brison and the other Ministers some slack (for now) as they continue to address the muzzling problem.

In any case, inferring that Treasury Board bureaucrats want to keep federal scientists on a “tight leash” seems to me to be a bit of an overreach. Keep in mind, however, that I don’t have the full document, so there may be more to the story than is publicly available.

Update 2016-03-31: I obtained the documents and [found][10a] that they do not support the journalist’s contention.

Information Commissioner

One last note: The Office of the Information Commissioner’s investigation into the muzzling of federal scientists will be three years old on April 1. I wrote to the Office of the Information Commissioner again and they have informed me that

“The investigation is ongoing. This is the only information that I can share at this time.”

It would seem there is no end in sight.

The Information Commissioner’s report remains important, despite the fact the Harper government has been dispatched. If she finds that the Harper government acted legally when they muzzled scientists, then the current government will need to remedy a serious defect in the law. If they acted illegally, then other repercussions might follow. Both will require time, and so I hope the Information Commissioner’s investigation will conclude soon.

(Updated 30 June 2016)