Canada’s Science Communication Problem (and Two Things That Could Change It)

Photo by Margo McDiarmid, CBC
Photo by Margo McDiarmid, CBC

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Stephen Strauss, a freelance science journalist and president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

These days when I start to talk to people outside Canada about our federal government’s muzzling of its scientists, I invariably say somewhere along the way “it’s kinda Rob Ford-like.” Ford is, for the 0.0001 per cent of you unfamiliar with the name, Toronto’s crack smoking, drunk driving, journalist defaming, woman groping, bullyboy of a mayor.

And I then explain that in a country whose official national motto is “peace, order and good government,” and whose unofficial national self characterization is “as cautious as a Canadian,” almost no Canadians ever imagined that one of our mayors would become world famous for being so, well, so dissolutely un-Canadian.

And quite similarly almost none of us would have suspected that a stereotypically orderly, cautious, peaceful Canadian federal government would come to be seen as the planet’s Dark Prince of science communication. And the present Conservative government’s refusal to let its scientists speak freely to the press would draw condemnation world-wide. To say “world-wide” is not hyperbole – look at this and this and this and this and this – but before I run out of “this’s” I should back up a little here for some context.

Over the past few years approval for the communication of science by Canadian government scientists has had to go through a bureaucratic pipeline which, when back-tracked, sounds a lot like Hollywood hiring Monty Python to give Kafka’s “The Castle” a rewrite. For example a study of different shapes of snowflakes went through 11 people in the Canadian bureaucracy, generated more than 50 pages of email, and still nobody got back to a reporter in time for his deadlines.

Stephen Strauss
Stephen Strauss (Photo courtesy of Strauss.)

In another case a government scientist was the lead author in a paper about a virus effecting salmon which was published in Science magazine. Science’s communication people told journalists world-wide to contact her for an interview. Instead of being delighted and proud, that request created discussions as high up as the government minister in charge of fisheries and oceans. There a decision was made that the scientist couldn’t talk to the press about what she had published even though Science said she could and world media were lined up to do so.

Not to mention the communications muzzle put on an Environment Canada scientist who co-authored a paper in Nature on a flood which occurred in the Arctic…13,000 years ago. [Editor’s note: for non-Canadians, it’s worth noting that Environment Canada is a government department, not a non-profit advocacy group.]

All of which precipitated a recent study by a union representing government scientists. It reported that of the more than 4,000 individuals who responded to a survey “90% feel they are not allowed to speak freely to the media about the work they do and that, faced with a departmental decision that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many (86%) would face censure or retaliation for doing so.” Not to mention that “71% believe political interference has compromised Canada’s ability to develop policy, law and programs based on scientific evidence” and “48% are aware of actual cases in which their department or agency suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public, industry and/or other government officials.”

And that’s not just the union’s view. An internal review by Environment Canada has reported that it had “refused 22 per cent of the 316 media requests received since the beginning of 2013.”

All of this has led government scientists and their supporters to protest in the Stand Up For Science demonstrations held first in Ottawa and then across the country. The protests were against both muzzling and government cuts to various science projects. (You can read about those at this hyperlink.)

Finally, the confluence of scientist muzzling and science cutting was the impetus behind a recent book which argues that Conservatives have “declared a war on science.”

All of which is – getting back to the lede of this blog – not what we Canadians ever expected, living as we do in a land of peace, order and good government – at least in our minds.

But then again we never expected to live in Rob Fordlandia either.

And that brings us to the question of what to do about this singular and collective mess. As president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, an organization whose members have protested, petitioned, marched, back door argued and blogged in a vain effort to change the present policies, I have jokingly suggested in the past making voluntary payment to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. That is because Canadian journalists sometimes have to go to Americans to get information about Canadian research – it happened with the snowflakes – and in a democracy you shouldn’t have (ha-ha) “representation without taxation.”

In a non-ha-ha fashion I have come to believe two things could force change.

One is a massive screw up where it is shown that government decisions were based on politics and not open and sound scientific advice. And that we citizens weren’t alerted to a disaster because muzzled scientists weren’t allowed to speak openly. The collapse of Canada’s East Coast cod fishery nearly 25 years ago is a classic example of just such a catastrophe. It was brought on in part by the fact that federal scientists were pushed to underestimate catch limits because, as journalists were told afterwards, “the cod don’t vote.”

If something similar happened again, the government would realize that to ignore science and to muzzle its scientists destroys politicians’ best justification for politically unpopular decisions. They can’t say to voters, as politicians of that cod collapse era did when closing the fishery: We hate doing this, and you hate us doing this, but we all have to listen to the scientists.

Failing that kind of politically-educative crisis, I expect that the only solution is the answer Torontonians have been given in resolving its Mayor Ford problems.

Vote the bum/bums out.

A new government with a more open science communications policy could make the unmuzzling of federal scientists one of its first acts of governance. Indeed, such a move would symbolize that it is a party that is better and more virtuous than its predecessors. And this is not a disgruntled science journalist’s “Santa Claus Will Give Me What I Want for Christmas” dreamscape. The New Democratic Party, the federal party with the second most seats in the Canadian Parliament, has already stated it wants to do just what I have outlined.

Giving federal scientists freedom to discuss their work would not only bring Canada more in line with its national self, but would do something which I believe has never before happened in human history: see an election decided – at least in part – on a science communications issue.

If that happens, we might still be imaging Monty Python rewriting “The Castle” – but this time with a science communications happy ending.


8 thoughts on “Canada’s Science Communication Problem (and Two Things That Could Change It)

  1. A great summary of what’s happening in Canada re: scicomm.

    Have been talking to John Dupuis (@dupuisj) at York U who’s looking into muzzling & funding of federal science under previous Cdn governments – on par with Stephen’s cod story above. Seems this isn’t a new trend, but has definitely reached its peak under the Harper govt. If anything, this ridiculousness has raised the profile of science in public discourse in Canada – but as Stephen rightly says, the best approach is to vote them out.
    Thanks Matt for featuring Canadian scicomm on your blog!


  2. Gerry Whitley

    A great summary of present Canadian science. Politicians can’t control science but they can destroy it. Scientists have been fleeing Canadian government departments for years. Canada had already lost its professional civil service and will soon loose the last of its competent scientists as they retire.


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  5. I was a young child growing up in Newfoundland during the days of the cod fishery debacle. I wasn’t old enough to understand why there was such an outcry or who decided to impose the moratorium, but cod is (was?) such an important part of Newfoundland’s culture that it directly affected whole communities who were concerned with nothing but what food to put on their table that week.

    I’ve spent most of my adult life studying science in Universities across Canada, and while I can’t speak on any muzzling trends over the last few decades, I know enough to recognize that the Canadian government is depleting funding to research facilities that ultimately safeguard the core values through which I identify myself as a Canadian. The short-term consequences of the government’s choices might be mitigated by financial gain, but I worry that the long-term outcomes are going to be devastating.

    Thanks for sharing this piece, Matt.


  6. There seem to be a lot of people who are terrified of science and think scientists are soulless monsters intent on destroying our beautiful planet and poisoning the people living on it, judging by some of the stuff that pops up on facebook shares and elseweb regularly. Hopefully they are not the majority of voters (which is not the same thing as the majority of citizens eligible to vote).


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