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The Canadian government is "muzzling" scientists
September 13, 2010 4:12 PM   Subscribe

Scientists working for the Canadian government aren't allowed to talk to journalists without permission from Ottawa. And the restriction isn't limited politically sensitive topics like climate change and the Alberta oil sands -- the co-author of a recent Nature article about flooding at the end of the last ice age was told to "wait for clearance from the minister's office" before talking to reporters about his work. The policy has only been in effect at Natural Resources in Canada since March, but Environment Canada has had the same rules since 2008. (Previously.)
posted by twirlip (44 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
I have a friend who works as a scientist for a Federal department. Generally speaking, he is not allowed to speak to the press without going through the communications office (which is located about 5000 miles away).

While he respects the rules, he says he doesn't particularly understand them or care for them, and is quite willing to push back when necessary. He mentioned that he has been requested to change data from a scientific study he worked on (it was something to do with climate change), and he just said "fuck you."

That said, communications control of messaging is pretty common in provincial and federal levels of government.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:17 PM on September 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is pretty much standard practice in the private sector - it's not like Joe Q Employee has permission to talk to the press about his job. It's kind of a drag but I don't know it's chilling exactly.
posted by GuyZero at 4:26 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Probably because this is the public sector.
posted by Dr. Send at 4:28 PM on September 13, 2010 [8 favorites]


Unlike the talk about censorship in the Amarillo Quran burning thread, this actually IS censorship.
posted by hippybear at 4:31 PM on September 13, 2010


Not just scientists.
posted by Decimask at 4:33 PM on September 13, 2010


I've worked on both sides in government - as someone in so-called "program area" actually delivering services and carrying out work, and as a public affairs officer, so I can say that in the public sector it's just as important to control the messaging, because if you make the executive and the politicians look good, they will continue to fund your department.

Scientists (and other qualified folks) are justifiably irritated about having to wag the dog. It doesn't make any sense and does not add value to what they do on a day to day basis, and having a bozo-the-clown PR flack demand that you tweak data to satisfy the Minister's office (or even the PMO) must seem like the ultimate insult, but, then again, working for government is full of degradation.

I found in government, that the magic formula was always to perform services that actually help people, then trumpet the results, and let the Minister or whoever take the credit. It makes no sense to bite the hand that feeds you (but it is also soul-destroying to have to bend to the will of the comms office, which is why scientists so often will fight back).
posted by KokuRyu at 4:37 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


It must drive Harper fucking crazy to go to bed at night knowing that there are untold scores of people out there who do not agree with everything he says, does or thinks.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:43 PM on September 13, 2010 [11 favorites]


How did Canada manage to elect George W. Bush? That's quite a trick.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:48 PM on September 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Unlike most other jobs, science is built on open communication of and discussion of results. When you retard this, you retard the advancement of humankind.
posted by zippy at 4:48 PM on September 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


Yep, we've had this in Australia with our CSIRO, from both parties.
posted by Jimbob at 5:02 PM on September 13, 2010


How did Canada manage to elect George W. Bush? That's quite a trick.

Harper is horrible, but he's our own home-grown flavour of horrible, thanks.
posted by GuyZero at 5:13 PM on September 13, 2010 [6 favorites]


"It must drive Harper fucking crazy..." Not crazy enough, if you ask me.

This is not about communications and message control, which is a necessity in modern government. Unless you believe that the purpose of "message control" is fundamentally propagandistic.

This is about restricting the media and the public's access to taxpayer-funded science, which is being "vetted" by people who don't believe in things like evolution and climate change, to further their own political agenda.
posted by sneebler at 5:20 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not to defend the difficult to defend, but to clarify: The first article says the policy is about researchers "whose work is financed by taxpayers". Nothing in the article says this, nor is this the case as far as I know. This seems to be the policy for (some?) researchers who work for government agencies/ministries. There are many many scientists whose research is paid for with government money but who are not employed in government agencies/ministries. In fact, I would guess that there are more researchers funded by the government who don't work for the government than who do.*

*I'm not considering university researchers as employed by the government here, since faculty are not really answerable to cabinet ministers in the way other kinds of civil servants ultimately are.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:25 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


But it's perfectly all right to put it on their Facebook status updates...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:25 PM on September 13, 2010


> I have a friend who works as a scientist for a Federal department. [...] He mentioned that he has been requested to change data from a scientific study he worked on (it was something to do with climate change), and he just said "fuck you."

Your friend should bypass the minister's office and go public with that story. Messaging is one thing, but actually tampering with the data? That's a big deal.
posted by twirlip at 5:38 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


I work in PR - let me talk about the other side of the coin here. There are a few reasons why we (PR) want to be involved when someone is talking to journalists.

Surprisingly - in all but the most controversial, unsettled and fraught topics (e.g negotiations on a deal yet to be signed, talking about a client's business, etc) - it has nothing to do with censorship, and everything to do with protecting the subject of the interview, and more broadly our organisation.

Here's why we want to be involved:
  • Scientists - employees in general - are not necessarily great communicators. In fact, they can be terrible communicators. This can leave interviewers confused, frustrated, and still ultimately ignorant of a topic. It can mean that great coverage doesn't happen. This can be addressed by a few different things, ranging from as simple as interview prep to perhaps finding the nominated spokesperson about a particular topic, rather than someone not actually qualified or able to talk about a topic.

  • If there's a great story to be told, we are the ones with the editorial connections and relationships to get it the platform it deserves. Sometimes this means saying no to a small magazine, so we can say yes to a national paper that wouldn't be interested unless it was exclusive.

  • We are there to we can tell when a line is being crossed - by either interviewer or subject - and get things back on track, or terminate the interview. I know this sounds like censorship, but people who aren't familiar with the media can be cajoled or coerced into answering questions they don't know the answer to, or making conclusions that they may not in fact mean. Journalists are often charming, regularly devious, and frequently confrontational, and all they care about is a headline or getting a quote for their pre-generated angle. Few people can resist the urge to answer a well-phrased, direct question.

  • Employees are generally not being interviewed as private citizens; they are being interviewed as representatives of our organisation. Therefore, we want to make sure they represent the organisation well. At the company I now work for (IBM), people are welcome to do any kind of media on any kind of topic they want as private citizens - and that doesn't just mean interviews about dogwalking or whatever, it can mean - Jane Q, specialist in storage who has worked for X, Y and IBM. But if they are talking about IBM (our clients, their work for us, our products, etc) we want to - we need to - be involved.

  • We justify our existence by coverage - if someone does an interview, we want to get a clipping, we want to show it to the people who love clippings, we want to demonstrate our worth. I'm not saying this is right or wrong, but we can't do it if we don't know about the interview

  • As a corrollary to this, if someone says something controversial or noteworthy in an interview, and there's going to be fall-out from it in the form of other questions, headlines, relationships with other organisations/clients that may be affected, we need to know about it. We need to know about it asap. It's an important part of our jobs.
How does this practically play out? In 90% of the situations it means we get notified, we sit on on the call, we don't say anything except to introduce the journo and the spokesperson when they don't know each other and goodbye at the end. The interview concludes, we talk with the spokesperson about how they felt about it, if there was anything they would change next time, and if they want to do more. The piece is published, we send copies to the spokesperson and other stakeholders in the business. That's it.

It's really, truly, not a nefarious conspiracy generally speaking. And it's not done for complex or machiavellian reasons - anymore than the whole practice of PR is, at any rate. I have been working here for 3 1/2 years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I've denied interview requests, and I have thus far *never* had to shut an interview down, thank god. It's really mostly an fyi.

Also, before you talk about censorship, man ,the stories I can tell about some spokespeople I've worked with in the broader PR environment. Terrible spokespeople, and the damage they have wrought chucking off about subjects they know nothing about, making blithe pronouncements on colleagues and the field, alienating journalists and representative of no one but themselves. It takes a certain person to be attracted to media interviews, and that personality is not always the best type for the job!

Don't get me wrong - anyone who's read my output on mefi knows what a filthy pinko commie I am, however I do think television has left the general public with a somewhat skewed view of the field of PR, its functions and its practice. What we do isn't any greater or lesser evil than a lot of the jobs in a large company. At its loftiest, we facilitate communication and genuine connection and understanding. Yeah, we don't do it every hour of the workday, but we do it for more than you think. Not everyone who works in PR is evil, and neither is all their work.
posted by smoke at 5:43 PM on September 13, 2010 [16 favorites]


Scientists - employees in general - are not necessarily great communicators. In fact, they can be terrible communicators.

This is so, so, so true.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:47 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


"... but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago."

How is this benign? Everyone knows the earth was created a mere 6,000 years ago.
posted by ileum at 5:56 PM on September 13, 2010 [2 favorites]


GRARRRRR!!!!

There has not previously been a problem with our scientists and researchers speaking for themselves. PR control has not been needed.

In other words, this is yet again an example of Harper wanting to keep facts from citizens.

Fuck Stephen Harper. I wish he would get hit by a bus. Fuck him, fuck him, fuck him—before he completely and irreversibly fucks us.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:29 PM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


One aspect of PR missing is that PR representatives are rarely tasked with getting he truth out, but instead with getting a story out that presents their organization in the best possible light. This can obviously be at odds with the scientist's goal of communicating the truth. In the linked story it certainly appears that appearance is given precedence over truth. And this is what I think is corrosive about the potential, and here demonstrated, conflict between public relations and science.
posted by zippy at 6:46 PM on September 13, 2010 [7 favorites]


Who are these scientists going to talk to? CBC news anchor Peter Mansbridge? or Wendy Mesley?
posted by ovvl at 7:22 PM on September 13, 2010


smoke -- I understand what you are saying about the job of PR but one has to distinguish between the private and the public sectors. Frankly, it sounds very condescending to say "we are the pros, scientists are not good communicator, we'll optimize the coverage," etc. etc. but the fact is that government employees (including politicians) are PUBLIC SERVANTS. They are paid by tax revenues and work for the tax-paying people -- they are not our bosses. If a scientist is not a good communicator, it is up to the reporter to make things clear by asking better questions, not up to civil service spin operators in the minister's office. This issue is not about better communication but control of the message. That is especially unpalatable in the field of science, where good data are supposed to take precedence over promoting an agenda.
posted by binturong at 8:06 PM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


The reporter is not a public servant though, they have an angle to sell their story. If a scientist is a poor communicator, then he is potentially not the appropriate person to be talking to the media. I'm not saying changing the facts are cool, but it's arguable that a laboratory could have a designated spokesperson. I draw the line at the spokesperson changing the results of the data, of course.
posted by cavalier at 8:24 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harper is horrible, but he's our own home-grown flavour of horrible, thanks.

Sure, but he seems to do a lot of things using the American flavour of horrible. That flavour didn't work out too well for the US, or anyone else for that matter.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:41 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


It must drive Harper fucking crazy to go to bed at night knowing that there are untold scores of people out there who do not agree with everything he says, does or thinks.he

So he's a MeFite? A Mac user?
posted by juiceCake at 8:42 PM on September 13, 2010


On the fpp issue, really, very little different under the Liberal government. There are very interesting things about how the Conservatives are running things, but this (particular facet of civil servant-press interaction) isn't one of them.

he seems to do a lot of things using the American flavour of horrible. That flavour didn't work out too well for the US, or anyone else for that matter.

Scuttlebutt on the CBC today is documentation from an ATIP (that's FOIA, to you) request that CSIS won't shy away from using information obtained (elsewhere, of course) by torture. So... yeah.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:47 PM on September 13, 2010


and here i thought the US government was ridiculous :P
posted by liza at 8:48 PM on September 13, 2010


> That flavour didn't work out too well for the US, or anyone else for that matter

That's a recurrent theme in Canadian politics: "It'll be different here!"
posted by Decimask at 8:52 PM on September 13, 2010


Because everyone knows some PR geek is much better at understanding complicated scientific studies than somebody with, say, a PhD and years of specialization in their field.
posted by 1000monkeys at 9:50 PM on September 13, 2010


I want facts, not spin. Serious shit is going tilt on this planet. Fuckers like him have no desire to plan us to be here for another two thousand years, let alone 200000. Jebus is coming for the creationists, oh yes he is.

Facts, goddamit, not ideology.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:57 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Because everyone knows some PR geek is much better at understanding complicated scientific studies than somebody with, say, a PhD and years of specialization in their field.

That's cute and glib (and true, reversed for sarcasm), but it kind of misses the point. If the PR flack doesn't understand the issue, you explain it to them until they do. That's the way it works. Don't get me wrong; Harper's Cons have clamped down on media communication (in other ways) far more than their predecessors, but this particular aspect gets a great big ole meh from me.

Facts, goddamit, not ideology.

f3, I've watched good public policy fail for lack of an adequate sales job. Both good ideas and bad are spoon-fed to the public. So it has ever been in my lifetime; so it shall likely always be.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:14 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Scientists - employees in general - are not necessarily great communicators. In fact, they can be terrible communicators.

This is so, so, so true.

Also so, so, so irrelevant.
posted by erniepan at 11:01 PM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


Probably because this is the public sector.

Yeah, these guys are working for me. I want them to feel free to tell me what's up. If the issue is that scientists may not be the best at putting their complex concepts into words that Joe Public can get his brain around, then by all means let the lab (or whatever) hire a speech writer to assist in the matter ... AS LONG AS THE GOAL IS CLEAR DELIVERY OF THE FACTS - NOT DUPLICITOUS OBFUSCATION AND/OR RELAY OF POLITICALLY ADVANTAGEOUS BULLSHIT.
posted by philip-random at 11:39 PM on September 13, 2010 [3 favorites]


My point of all of the above spiel - aside from trying to illuminate a not-especially-well-understood vocation - is to outline, it's not the request that bothers me so much; the devil is really in the details.

How many interviews are not being approved through this process? None of the pieces mentions a single one that was denied. Which ones are not? Why aren't they?

I'm Australian, and I certainly don't know the ins-and-outs of the Harper govt. I do, however, understand that he's not-so-great, so I can understand why people's hackles would rise at such a move coming from him because of its potentially political undertones.

That being the case, the target here is really Harper and his government, rather than what in actuality is very common communications/PR practice that is no more inherently immoral than any other kind of tool, and boils primarily down to point 4 of my little PR primer: "Employees are generally not being interviewed as private citizens; they are being interviewed as representatives of our organisation."
posted by smoke at 12:06 AM on September 14, 2010


Journalists are often charming, regularly devious, and frequently confrontational, and all they care about is a headline or getting a quote for their pre-generated angle.

Aw, smoke, we haven't even met and you know so much about me? Can either of us ever really love again when we can't even trust each other?

*ahem*

Yeah, well, seriously - smoke? I'm pretty sure your heart's in the right place, but Harper govt message control is not scientists-are-bad-communicators message control. It is rather quite pointedly science-is-bad-for-our-agenda message control. I'm a Canadian writer and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the topic of the sudden, dramatic change in SOP in the media relations dept at Environment Canada has been pretty much the topic of hot discussion on SEJ Canada listservs for two years now.

Scientists who want to talk to journalists they've been interviewing and sharing background information with for years have been muzzled. Queries for routine interviews on matters of legitimate public interest - the likely re-activation date of the reactor producing all of Canada's medical nuclear isotopes, whose availability is a life-and-death thing at hospitals nationwide, say - go unanswered.

In the linked Sun article, Canada's top climate scientist (whose paycheque is signed, thankfully, by a university, not EnviroCan) is quoted at length. I've interviewed him before (though it was many moons ago). He does tons of media, and writes books, and has waited two years where I bet this was the talk of the conference circuit he's on to finally find a media outlet willing to do a story on the very fact of the muzzling. "It's Orwellian," he says. He's not a hyperbole-spouter by nature. This shit is unprecedented, anti-scientific political spin by the worst government in Canadian history. Even if it looks like it's analogous to professional media grooming the world over, it ain't.
posted by gompa at 12:37 AM on September 14, 2010 [7 favorites]


And I am more than happy to take your word for it, Gompa; that's the kind of context I'm not aware of. Really, I'm just trying to defend the idea the of letting communications know about press activity, not this specific application. Thanks for the extra information.

(PS, I do know about journalists, cause I was one for five/six years. I think you and I would both agree that your excellent work and practice bears little in common with the majority of newspaper and [god help us] magazine journalism.)
posted by smoke at 3:56 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]



So he's a MeFite? A Mac user?


Harper? I've always had him pegged as a 4chan kind of guy.
posted by Stagger Lee at 8:04 AM on September 14, 2010


but Harper govt message control is not scientists-are-bad-communicators message control. It is rather quite pointedly science-is-bad-for-our-agenda message control.

the Harper gov't is the gov't who once said, in regard to the needle exchange in Vancouver's drug-ravaged downtown eastside (the Health Minister, I believe), that " ... rest assured, our actions will not be based on science alone."

In truth, they're really like any mobilized political force, more interested in power (its acquisition and application) than anything connected with truth-telling, unless, of course, if it serves their agenda. What makes Harper and company particularly odious is that the majority of Canadians seem to be in favour of a generally decent, small "l" liberal agenda (multiculturalism, strong social safety net, environmental sanity etc). So the only way for Harper to retain what little power he has is to identify "areas of contention and difference" and pounce on them, seeking to make them wider (the old divide + conquer strategy).
posted by philip-random at 8:19 AM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]




Ah, crap. Entering links on iOS sucks beezlebub's balls.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:42 AM on September 14, 2010


Interesting. Just recently, very similar news have come out in Finland as well:
A group of researchers at the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) are accusing their employer of exerting pressure to silence critical opinions.
According to VTT researchers interviewed by the Finnish News Agency (STT), the organisation is trying to promote specific points of view in questions of energy.
Disputes have emerged over statements concerning peat, nuclear energy, and biological diesel fuel. One employee said that VTT’s management recently ordered him not to send a letter to the editor of Helsingin Sanomat, in which he voiced criticism about peat energy.

hs.fi: Group of VTT researchers feel they have been pressured into silence

Serious accusations have emerged about a conflict of interest at the top the research center:
Helynen is a member of the board of the International Peat Society and has previously headed Finbio, an association that has spoken on behalf of the use of peat. From 2005 to 2009 she was a member of the board of the laboratory company Enas, which is owned by VTT, Jyväskylä Energy, and the peat producer Vapo.
hs.fi: VTT technology manager sees no conflict of interest over links with Peat Society
posted by Anything at 8:56 AM on September 15, 2010


Everywhere I have worked in the public sector here in the US, we have been told not to talk to reporters directly. Before we had this policy and I talked to reporters they would typically misunderstand or quote me incorrectly. Your average worker doesn't really want to talk to the press for this reason. I would prefer to leave it to management to be the public spokesperson. To call it Orwellian is idiocy^3.
posted by JJ86 at 11:46 AM on September 15, 2010


To call it Orwellian is idiocy

It becomes Orwellian when management (and those managing them) are filtering for purposes beyond straight clarity of communication. As I suggested earlier in the thread, there's nothing wrong with employing a pro-writer/editor/whatever to assist with getting a clear, succinct message out. But there's a lot wrong when the message itself gets trimmed, censored, warped to suit a particular political goal. This is particularly so when it's the Public Sector, because I'm the tax payer, I'm the client.

DON'T LIE TO ME.
posted by philip-random at 12:24 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Granted, but this may or may not be the case. The newspaper article obviously sensationalizes the issue which makes it hard to find out what the real problem is.
posted by JJ86 at 1:55 PM on September 15, 2010


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