A Toronto Star journalist made the surprising claim on 19 March 2016 that
“Senior civil servants warned the new Liberal government that ‘unmuzzled’ scientists still need a tight leash, internal documents show.”
Following a few initial queries, I submitted a formal complaint on 16 May. Kathy English, The Star’s Public Editor, responded the next day. The Star disagrees with my assessment.
The text of Mrs. English’s reply is reproduced below (with permission). My formal complaint is given at the end.
Update 2016/07/11: I have posted a response to the Public Editor’s remarks.
The Star’s View
Dear Mr. Duck:
[Personal greeting removed]
The Star believes this article is accurate and was reported fairly and responsibly based on the internal documents and the reporter’s interviews. As well, the minister’s office was apprised in advance of the Star’s reading of the document and the focus of the article and did not respond to suggest the article was inaccurate or unfair. And, in fact, there has been no call for clarification or correction about the Star’s interpretation of this document. In my experience, government ministers are quick to inform the Star if they believe it has reported inaccurately.
The article states that senior bureaucrats cautioned the Treasury Board president on allowing government scientists to be too freewheeling in public comments. The “tight leash” reference is based on these sentences advising Minister Scott Brison of the current communications policy:
“Voters entrust ministers, not unelected public servants, with weighing the factors relevant to decisions.”
“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 minister to determine priorities, and defend them before the Canadian public.”
“More broadly, allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or other criteria – can jeopardize the relationship between the public service and ministers, undermining the trust that is essential to an effective working relationship.”
While indeed it would seem that some of this is a restatement of Treasury Board conventions, in the context of the immense public controversy over muzzling scientists, I think it is fair to characterize this as a “warning” and a clear statement that government scientists should not have unfettered right to speak as they please about their findings, as some would believe should be the intent of “unmuzzling” scientists.
Given this new government’s bold promise to radically change the way government communicates with the public, including, importantly, government scientists, I agree with the reporter and his editors that these statements support the article’s point that the report indicates that scientists “still need a tight leash.” And while any report is obviously open to interpretation, on seeing the fuller version of those statements as you have set out below, it would seem to me that the Star’s story is further strengthened.
Dear Public Editor,
This email is a formal complaint about the following article:
Keep ‘unmuzzled’ scientists on tight leash, senior civil servants warn Liberals
by Alex Boutilier, 19 March 2016
The article claims “Senior civil servants warned the new Liberal government that ‘unmuzzled’ scientists still need a tight leash, internal documents show.”
My complaint is as follows: The document does not show what Mr. Boutilier claimed, and this has misinformed the public about an important issue. Furthermore, The Star published letters in response to the article that unfairly target the civil servant named in his article.
It is my opinion that had Mr. Boutilier asked a knowledgable expert for advice, they would have told him the document was not arguing for scientists to be kept on a “short leash”. It is an issue that I track very closely and have written about. See http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2015/09/15/Canada-Muzzled-Scientists/.
I have written to you about this before (a tweet on 1 April 2016, and emails on 6 April and 26 April 2016). There has not been a response. I am hoping to hear from you about this issue.
I independently obtained a copy of the document, and Mr. Boutilier has confirmed it is the correct one. I posted it online at http://tomduck.ca/pdf/2016-03-31_treasury-board-atip.pdf.
The document is titled “Moving Forward on ‘Unmuzzling’ Scientists”. It is a brief prepared for Treasury Board president Scott Brison to inform him as the government revises Harper-era policies. The document summarizes what is currently written in the Communications Policy and the Values and Ethics Code of the Government of Canada. It notes that the Treasury Board president is responsible for both, and that while some scientists are unmuzzled “the public service has not yet developed a whole-of-government approach”.
The Considerations section outlines long-standing conventions for the roles of scientists and ministers in the Government of Canada. This is important background information that the Minister would need to know. It is actually quite helpful to have these conventions – largely ignored by the Harper government – so clearly articulated. The Recommendations section is redacted as is usual for advice to Ministers when documents are released to the public.
None of this constitutes a warning that federal scientists should be kept on a “short leash”. One cannot surmise what might have been in the redacted section. Claims need to be supported by evidence.
Only by taking quotes out of context can Mr. Boutilier make his case. Here is the Considerations section in full:
“Decisions typically take into account multiple factors. Factors that ministers consider in making decisions come in many forms: scientific, economic, social, legal, international, ethical and political considerations may be relevant. Science is important but rarely determinative. Voters entrust ministers, not unelected public servants, with weighing the factors relevant to decisions.
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.
The engagement of scientists in the public sphere needs to be balanced against their ethical duty as public servants. There is an appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly to communicate scientific information, to build national and international research networks, and to educate and foster interest in science. However, considerations such as security (e.g., scientists engaged in defence for public safety research), public health, and contractual obligations (e.g., scientists working closely with industry) impose legitimate restrictions. More broadly, allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions – whether based on scientific evidence or other criteria – can jeopardize the relationship between the public service and ministers, undermining the trust that is essential to an effective working relationship."
Mr. Boutilier only provided the middle paragraph. Taken in context, it is completely benign. Nowhere is it suggested – explicitly or implicitly – that a “short leash” is needed. The document’s argument that “there is an appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly” contrasts sharply with the approach taken by the Harper government.
There are other troubling issues. Mr. Boutilier insinuates conflict where there is apparent agreement. He wrote
“But Debbie Daviau, the president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), said her members simply want the ability to speak publicly about their research”
yet makes no mention of the document’s argument that there is an “appropriate role for scientists to engage publicly to communicate scientific information”. He further quotes Daviau as saying
“Appreciating that the government does not want to permit scientists just to have free rein to say whatever they want to whomever they want whenever they want, work still needs to be done to establish what those boundaries actually are.”
The entire last paragraph of the document’s Communications section is devoted to explaining the traditional boundaries. Basic fairness suggests that Mr. Boutilier should have provided readers with this information.