Opinion

Feds Fire Back at Tyee's 'Muzzled Scientists' Column

And the column's author responds to Environment Canada's defence of its practices.

By Charles Slowey and Mitchell Anderson 1 Apr 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Slowey is Director General of Communications for Environment Canada.

Vancouver-based Mitchell Anderson is a widely published environmental journalist and occasional contributor to The Tyee. Mitchell's Tyee column that drew a response from Environment Canada first appeared on DeSmogBlog.

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Scientists views are promoted, not stifled, says Environment Canada.

[Editor's note: The Tyee received this letter via email on March 26, sent by the Manager of Media and Public Relations for Environment Canada.]

In response to recent media coverage that the Environment Canada media relations policy "muzzles" scientists I would like to correct the record.

We are proud of the work our scientists do and we are working hard to promote their research and initiatives. After all, it's a major part of what the department does with nearly two thirds of our employees working in science and technology and conducting research to better understand wildlife, biodiversity, water, air, soil, climate, environmental prediction and environmental technologies. Environment Canada scientists are prolific publishers of peer-reviewed publications -- the seventh largest in the world with over 700 publications reviewed each year.

For the past two years, Environment Canada has been following a media relations policy that is consistent with those used by many public and public sector organizations. The policy is designed to ensure that requests for information by the media are responded to quickly, accurately and consistently.

Despite reports that media access is restricted, the fact is that since 2008 Environment Canada has responded to more than 6,000 requests from the media on a variety of environmental issues ranging from weather related inquiries to details about climate change science. Every year the number of media requests we coordinate continues to increase. In 2009, Environment Canada's call volume increased 35 per cent over the previous year.

Science is important to the department's work. We will continue to communicate and promote the work of Environment Canada scientists, including through our outreach initiatives on the web, our partnership in science.gc.ca, as well as in our e-zine and newsletters.

Charles Slowey

Director General, Communications

Environment Canada

TYEE CONTRIBUTOR MITCHELL ANDERSON RESPONDS:

Mr. Slowey's response to my article contained many words but seemingly little substance. The central premise of my piece was that a restrictive communications policy brought in 2007 had severely reduced the number of media stories on climate change.

This policy (which you can read here) itemizes the following mandatory procedure whenever the media attempts to contact an Environment Canada scientist:

Media relations at NHQ will coordinate all media calls coming into the department. Upon receiving a media call, the recipient will inform their direct supervisor and contact media relations

Media relations will work with individual staff to decide how to best handle the call; this could include:

- Asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines

- Having Media Relations respond

- Referring the call to the Minister's Office

- Referring the call to another department

Once the call is returned, Media Relations will log the call and close the file

Researchers are also frequently required to submit written answers for approval before speaking to reporters. So what has been in the impact of this policy on the media's access to Canadian climate scientists?

According to a leaked Environment Canada memo obtained by the Montreal Gazette, "Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent."

Three years ago there were 45 media stories that cited Environment Canada climate scientists. By 2008-09, this number had plunged to eight. Mission accomplished?

Canada as an arctic nation will be greatly impacted by climate change. It is vitally important that Canadians have free and open access to the world-class expertise of our publicly-funded scientists in order to make informed democratic decisions.

Instead, Environment Canada seems to be seeking to "muzzle" these researchers, in the words of the leaked memo that Mr. Slowey neither addresses nor refutes.

He instead intones that this is a "media relations policy that is consistent with those used by many public and public sector organizations."

True? The U.S. government has embraced a spirit of openness and transparency around climate science that is in sharp contrast to Canada. As detailed in an article in the Ottawa Citizen, NASA climate scientists are free to takes calls from the media without seeking political clearance.

NASA is also hosting an informative website on climate change that focuses on explaining the science, whereas the analogous Environment Canada website seems to focus much more on trumpeting the climate "accomplishments" of our political leaders.

The media bottleneck at Environment Canada that Mr. Slowey defends is also inconsistent with a federal policy that states: "Institutions must operate and respond effectively in a 24-hour media environment. They must be able, on short notice, to reach and inform the media on issues of importance to decision makers and the public."

Lastly, the important charges made by Dr. Schindler, as well as the recent "gutting" of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science are also unaddressed by Mr. Slowey.

Perhaps the best judge of the new communications policy comes from an un-named Environment Canada scientist who offered these thoughts on the situation:

"In thirty years of service in the Environment Department I was never stopped from giving the public my views on scientific issues. Now I am controlled and told what to say or I am not allowed to talk. I feel that the public pay for the scientific information we gain as government scientists and the public have a right to know what we are thinking. But we are afraid of the consequences if we speak out now. Democracy cannot work without access to the information needed for decision making."

I leave it to others in the Canadian scientific community to assess whether the statements made by Mr. Slowey are accurate. Our anonymous comment section is at your disposal...  [Tyee]

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