The Harper government’s iron grip on communications has been acutely felt in federal agencies and departments that engage in scientific research, resulting in a dramatic drop in press releases, the muzzling of scientists, and, in one department at least, a process that flags “negative” interview requests from news media, often leaving them unanswered or denied, internal documents show.
Since the Tories formed government in 2006, the clampdown and centralization of communications by the Privy Council Office (PCO) – the bureaucratic arm that serves the Prime Minister’s Office – has been well documented, from directives to use the term “Harper Government” on official Government of Canada communications to tightly stage-managed press conferences.
But documents obtained under the Access to Information Act reveal just how politically charged government communications have become at the departmental level, especially when it involves federal scientists.
A survey of 290 media requests for interviews with scientists at the National Research Council (NRC) between June 28, 2010, and Sept. 19, 2012, found that communications staff rank each request according to the expected tone of the article, using designators of “positive,” “informational,” or “negative.” (The NRC is a Canadian government agency that conducts scientific research and development, and partners with industry to bring new technologies to market).
Of the total requests for interviews, 10 were deemed negative. Of these, only two led to an interview. The rest were either denied or the reporter was given only an email response.
Even those reporters who actually get an interview may end up talking to a scientist who has been well-coached on government messaging, insiders say.
John Stone, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who ran the NRC’s climate research program until 2005, said his colleagues’ freedom to speak has been sharply curtailed in recent years.
“We were encouraged to talk with the media [in the past], and we were quite proud to do that. And now there seems to be an era where that’s possibly discouraged,” said Stone, now a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“Their responses, if they’re allowed to respond, are carefully scripted,” he said, “particularly in the area of climate change, but generally in the areas where that science would seem to, in the views of the government, not be helpful for some of their policy agendas.”
The communications clampdown regularly stymies reporters like Tom Spears, the Ottawa Citizen’s science reporter. A March 1, 2012, request from Spears for an interview with someone at the NRC was held up for more than six hours, blowing his deadline. The story dealt with research by scientists in Canada and at NASA into snowfall patterns in southern Ontario. The NASA interview requests were granted within 15 minutes, according to a column Spears wrote after the incident.
Spears ran the story without NRC response. He then submitted an access to information request to find out what happened to his media request. What he got back was a 50-page package of documents full of emails bounced between 11 NRC employees.
“The federal department never agreed to an interview. It sent an email instead, with technical details on equipment but without much information on the nature of the project,” Spears said in a column about the experience.
“It never even explained the study’s topic. Before sending even that modest response, however, it took a small army of staffers – 11 of them by our count – to decide how to answer, and dozens of emails back and forth to circulate the Citizen’s request, discuss its motivation, develop their response, and ‘massage’ its text.”
NRC spokesperson Émilie Archambault rejected suggestions that the department has clamped down on communications.
“Our scientists regularly converse with the media: in fact, they do so almost every day,” she said an e-mail. “We record some 200 media requests each year.
“At this time, researchers and scientists employed by National Research Council Canada are required to report the interview requests they receive; this requirement has not changed in recent years.”
John McDougall, president of the NRC, denied claims of censorship and noted there’s been more media coverage of his agency in recent years.
“To my knowledge we really haven’t been muzzling scientists,” he said. “There’s been a high level of engagement, there’s been lots of interaction. Our media coverage during our last few years has actually roughly tripled I think, so I would argue that it’s not really an issue here.”
But McDougall concedes the NRC has been circumspect about its own strategic direction, which is undergoing a major transformation under his leadership.
Since 2011, he has shifted the department’s focus away from basic research toward science that will attract industry partners, generate revenue and spur economic development. The change was first detailed in a staff memo revealed by the journal Nature.
McDougall, who took the reigns of the department in 2010, oversees 4,000 permanent staff, about 1,400 visiting workers and a budget of $900 million. His memo said much of the NRC’s research budget would be centralized and focused on economic development. (He later clarified that the Council does not want to duplicate the research efforts of universities).
When a reporter asked for an interview about the new direction back in 2011, the request was denied and few details have emerged since.
“It’s undergoing a major restructuring, and mostly in secret. There’s no plan to look at, there’s no consultation happening with employees at the NRC,” said NDP science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart.
McDougall and the NRC only recently began granting interviews about the new strategic direction, including to The Huffington Post.
He confirmed the agency wants to target research at Canadian problems that matter to “clients” not just individual researchers. Clients can include business, a government department, a regulator or a non-profit — “someone who is actually going to put it to use,” he said.
“When you’re working through a change process, you’re really focused internally,” he said, explaining why the NRC hasn’t been more open about the changes.
“It’s not something that you do in a public environment, if I could put it that way. You’re focused internally... . You end up leading to more speculation than to real understanding.”
Asked how the scientists under his employ have responded to the changes, McDougall said, “Scientists are like anybody else.
“When you try to make somebody accountable and accountability has been relatively loose, everybody will object. I mean I would love it if everybody just gave me my paycheque every year and just said have a good time and come back next year and I’ll give it to you again, right? I mean that’s a pretty nice way of living. The reality is, especially if I’m using the public’s money, I ought to be accountable to the fact that I’m giving the public value back.”
While the NRC says its media engagement is high, what cannot be denied is that the flow of press releases from the agency and other federal science departments has slowed considerably in recent years.
The change began in earnest in 2008, when a memo was sent out to federal government communications employees stipulating that all press releases were to be run through the PCO.
“This was extremely unusual,” said Carolyn Brown, who worked at the time as the manager of the scientific journals program at the NRC’s Research Press.
Before the directive, press releases were put out by government departments and cleared by the top communications staff, which was the highest level of approval needed, said Brown.
While the PCO directive applies to all government departments, the impact on science departments is particularly destructive, Brown said.
It makes sense for government departments dealing with matters of purely a policy nature to mull over news releases, she said, but “science is supposed to be objective and neutral and free of policy kind of considerations.”
An analysis of the number of press releases issued by federal science departments shows a dramatic drop in communications since the Tories formed government in 2006:
- Environment Canada put out 71 news releases in 2012, compared with 110 in 2005, a decrease of more than 35 per cent.
- The Department of Fisheries and Oceans put out 128 news releases in 2012, compared with 243 in 2005, a decrease of 47 per cent
- The National Research Council put out 14 news releases in 2012, versus 33 in 2005, a decrease of 58 per cent
- Natural Resources Canada put out 154 news releases in 2012, compared with 176 in 2005, a decrease of 13 per cent
Everything has to be vetted through communications departments and the red tape is essentially keeping scientists out of newspapers, NDP science and technology critic Kennedy Stewart said.
“Especially if it’s in areas that perhaps clash with policy initiatives that the government’s undertaking,” he said.
“If the government doesn’t want to deal with climate change, they don’t want research on climate change. So what you’re finding, really, is the people who are getting hit the hardest are physicists and biologists especially. If you want to run pipelines through streams, you don’t want people looking at ecosystems. So you just make sure that research is harder to do, and, if you do it, it’s impossible to talk about.”
A February 2013 report from Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria documented the many policies that muzzle scientists.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has launched an investigation stemming from the report and targeting seven federal departments and agencies, including Environment Canada and the National Research Council.
“We’ve seen examples ... where the approved (media) lines are actually being written for scientists without the scientists’ ever seeing them,” said Calvin Sandborn, a professor at University of Victoria who helped compile the findings.
The 128-page report documents specific instances when scientists weren’t allowed to grant interviews and found a pattern of muzzling when the scientific research or opinion runs counter to government policies on matters such as environmental protection, oil sands development and climate change.
At Environment Canada, for instance, public servants working in media relations must consult with the minister's office on journalists’ requests for interviews on any subject other than the weather, the report found. The PCO must vet media requests if the subject matter relates “to climate change, wildlife, water quality and supply” or to government processes “to protect species such as the polar bear and caribou,” the report notes.
“We became aware of the policies, and particularly the skewed policies on anything that seems to affect the major oil industry interests,” Sandborn said.
Among other examples of muzzling documented by Democracy Watch and others:
- Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick was prevented from talking to media about a research project he had worked on that had discovered the largest hole ever found in the ozone layer in 2011. When responding to a reporter who asked for an interview, Tarasick replied, “I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.”
- Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller was forbidden from talking about a virus affecting salmon in B.C. Her research on the topic was published in the prestigious science journal Nature, but interview requests about the research were denied. When she testified about her findings in August 2011 at the Cohen Commission – a review of a decline in Fraser River salmon populations – she said she believed it would have been useful to talk to the media when her findings were published.
- Ottawa has been accused of trying to get international status removed from Dr. Frederick Kibenge’s salmon health laboratory at University of Prince Edward Island after it revealed infectious salmon anemia in B.C., something that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency denies exists on the West Coast.
- Last year when federal scientists attended a polar ice conference in Montreal, they were assigned media minders before they could be interviewed by reporters.
It all adds up to what Sandborn calls an “absolutely indefensible policy” governing scientists.
“Government doesn’t want scientists talking to the public about science and about facts,” he said, “and everything is controlled to ensure that a certain political point of view is carried forward.”
The Huffington Post Canada series "Stifling Science" will examine the plight of publicly-funded science in Canada and the changes that have occurred during the past seven years under the Harper government. This is Part Three of Four. Click here for the full series. Melissa Mancini is a student in the journalism program at University of King's College and worked on this series in partnership with The Huffington Post Canada.