Canadian Science Writers Try to Get Election Attention

The President of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) has issued an open letter to the leaders of the major Canadian parties.  In the letter, Kathryn O’Hara calls for an ‘unmuzzling‘ of Canadian government scientists, that they should be made more freely available for interviews and not required to obtain clearance from public affairs offices or other non-scientist officials prior to speaking with the media.

The letter outlines some cases of this ‘muzzling’ and I am reluctant to put this in the same category of science politicisation as the editing (intentional or not) of scientific results done by various political appointees.  As I discussed over at The Bubble Chamber on a similar case, government scientists are employed under different expectations and obligations compared to their academic colleagues.  An expectation of academic freedom for scientists not working for a university is asking too much, unless it’s written into a contract or into relevant laws and regulations.

I’d be more sympathetic to the complaints in this kind of case if the research that science writers are seeking interviews about weren’t otherwise available.  As outlined in the cases cited by the Canadian Science Writers Association, the research was published, and other authors were made available for comment.  While I understand the frustration of the writers, this isn’t the same as research not being published, or edited by non-scientists prior to publication.  And it’s not unique to Canada.

The conduct of the public affairs officers mentioned here is troublesome, but it’s nothing unique to science.  (The violation of Canadian public information laws in the case discussed at The Bubble Chamber is a bigger problem, and also not unique to science.)  Think of politicians who don’t speak to the press, or only to certain media outlets.  Consider other government employees not made available for comment.

The CSWA is right to emphasize the open government angle here.  But I have my doubts that only scientists are being ‘muzzled’.  Perhaps they may have more impact in their efforts if they band with other Canadian journalism groups in a broader campaign.  As of right now, only one of the four major parties has responded to the letter.  The election is next week.