Shh! Don’t Mention the Lab

“Muzzle” may very well be the word of the year in Canadian science journalism. Several weeks ago, the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) and other related organizations held a symposium entitled “Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Debate” at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver. During this symposium, attendees from all over the world learned an embarrassing fact about Canada: scientists who are employed by the Canadian federal government are not permitted to discuss their work with journalists without obtaining prior consent from media-relations officers. The CSWA, which says that requests to interview federal scientists are frequently denied or delayed, argues that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government (which came to power in 2006) has imposed a stranglehold on its researchers’ interactions with the media, thereby preventing adequate engagement of the general public with taxpayer-funded research.

After the symposium, the “muzzling” issue was re-opened with a vengeance. Newspapers from across the globe were buzzing about the topic. The Canadian television comedy show Rick Mercer Report aired a brilliant satirical advertisement for “PMO [Prime Minister's Office] Scientist Pest Control” (see the video clip below). Even Nature, one of the world’s most influential peer-reviewed scientific journals, stepped into the conversation. The high-profile Nature editorial (published on February 29, 2012) attacked the Harper government’s dismal track record in scientific transparency with the media, stating that “it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.”

The main issue seems to arise from conflicting interests. The media wishes to report to the public about scientific work that is being conducted within government agencies, but the government wants to guard its research in the interest of its political agenda. In many ways, private firms in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries hold just as firm a grip on their research activities, albeit for financial reasons. While the government’s media-relations policy seems to have forcibly isolated federal scientists from journalists for now, those who work in Canadian universities are thankfully not subjected to the same kinds of restrictions. Most people in academia would probably agree that communicating research findings to the public is absolutely necessary, whether the deed is done through an article in a scientific journal or an interview with a local newspaper. As a graduate student, it’s difficult to imagine having any university-imposed barriers that would actually prevent me from speaking to the media or to the public. Apparently this type of scientific freedom of speech is a luxury, though.

Any scientist who is supported by public funding should be allowed to report honestly about how the money has been used. As scientists, if our progress in research is not communicated back to the people who are supporting us, then why should we expect anybody to want to fund our work? Back in 2010, when I began my Master’s degree in Pharmacology and Neuroscience, I received a scholarship from the Molly Appeal for Medical Research, a fund that was started over 30 years ago by a Haligonian named Molly Moore. Molly was not a scientist; she was a woman who just wished to give something to medical research in the community. People who contribute to the fund are interested in advancing medical research, and knowingly support students like myself. The substantial monetary award went a long way to support me when I was just starting out in pain research. Now that I am approaching the end of my degree, I am working on getting my research published in a scientific journal. While this would allow my work to be formally recognized within the scientific community, it would also be an opportunity for me to indicate that I have used public money well. Since a divide always exists between scientific journals and non-scientists, it is critical for science communicators to bridge the gap. And whether research is being conducted in academia, industry, or government, everyone deserves to know what kind of scientific progress is being made in Canada.

Over the next few weeks, it will be interesting to follow the growing global discussion of the “muzzling” issue, as well as to watch the Canadian government’s reaction to mounting criticism of its science media-relations protocol. Hopefully, the recent steps taken by the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to promote federal scientific transparency with the media will also prompt the Canadian government to implement similar policy changes.

Recommended reading:

O’Hara, K. (2010). Canada must free scientists to talk to journalists. Nature, 467. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100929/full/467501a.html

Open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper from representatives of journalists and federal scientists (February 16, 2012)

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