10/08/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 12/08/2014 05:59 EST

Federal government scientists muzzled by media policies, report suggests

Canadian government scientists face far more restrictions on talking to the media than their U.S. counterparts, a new analysis has found.

The study of media policies from 16 federal departments was released today by Evidence for Democracy, a non-profit group that advocates for evidence-based public policy. The group organized rallies across the country in support of federal scientists in 2013.

The analysis, led by Karen Magnuson-Ford, a researcher at Simon Fraser University who has a master's degree in biology, found that all but one department performed worse than the average for U.S. government departments in similar analyses in 2008 and 2013. The policies were assessed with respect to:

- How accessible, clear and consistent they were.

- How well they promoted openness and timeliness of communication.

- How much protection they offered scientists against political interference.

- How well they protected scientists' right to free speech.

- How much protection they offered for whistle-blowers.

"Overwhelmingly, current media policies do not effectively support open communication between federal scientists and the media," the report said. "Scientists are the best spokespeople for their own work and, barring rare instances where information is highly sensitive, it is essential that they be able to communicate their expertise to the media and the public."

The report scored the media policies of each department based on 14 specific criteria such as whether the policy is publicly available online and whether clearance is required for media interview questions addressed to scientists.

Wide variation

Overall, there was a wide variation in scores among departments, with the Department of National Defence and the National Research Council scoring highest. Departments receiving the lowest scores were:

- The Canadian Space Agency.

- Public Works and Government Services Canada

- Industry Canada

- Natural Resources Canada.

"In the best case scenarios, scientists can talk directly to the journalist," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy and co-author of the report. "In the worst-case scenario, they have to pass everything on to communications staff."

The report found that the Department of National Defence was the only government department that didn't require pre-approval from its media relations officers for scientists to speak to the media.

The National Research Council was the only department that allows its scientists to express their personal views, provided he or she states that the opinions are his or her own.

Gibbs said the analysis was inspired by public concerns that federal scientists were being restricted from talking to the media.

A 2013 survey of federal government scientists by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada suggested that political interference preventing government scientists from speaking freely was widespread. That same year, Canada's information commissioner confirmed that her office would investigate allegations the federal government is muzzling its scientists, following a complaint by the non-profit group Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Clinic.

U.S. success

"We've been looking to what other countries have done when they've been in similar positions and facing similar challenges," Gibbs said.

She learned that the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a similar analysis of U.S. federal government media policies in 2008, when there were complaints of scientists being muzzled under president George W. Bush. A similar study in 2013 found significant improvement.

Gibbs added that while there has been much talk about Canadian government communications policies contributing to the muzzling of scientists, "there's really been no systematic assessment of that."

The assessment wasn't that easy to do: Only two of the 16 departments made their media policies available online. Most others required the researchers to file several access to information requests.

Gibbs said she hopes the new report will help facilitate discussion, provide a baseline to compare against in the future, and provide useful recommendations to government departments.

Top recommendations include:

- Allowing scientists to speak to the media without pre-approval.

- Explicitly allowing scientists to state their opinions, provided they make clear that they are speaking on behalf of themselves and not on behalf of the government.

Arne Mooers, a Simon Fraser University biology professor who helped supervise the analysis, said the fact that the Department of National Defence did so well came as a surprise, but it shows that it is possible for federal government departments to craft good media policies.

He added that the 2008 U.S. report spurred U.S. federal government departments to improve their media policies.

"If they can make these improvements across the board, so can we," Mooers said. "It's not like our departments are somehow doing something more sensitive than they are."

Gibbs said she and Magnuson-Ford worked closely with the Union of Concerned Scientists to try and make their scoring consistent with the U.S. study. For some criteria, such as whether the policy was available online, the scoring was discrete and objective. In other cases, Gibbs acknowledged that scoring was more subjective. When that was the case, she said the researchers tried to consider how a federal scientist would interpret and score the policy.

The study was funded by the Centre for Coastal Studies at SFU, Evidence for Democracy, the NSERC Canada Discovery Grants Programme, the Willow Grove Foundation and the University of Ottawa.