Editorial News

The science of it all

Every day at least a dozen reports on this, that, or the other thing come through my inbox. A small percentage of them I consider relevant or interesting to our readership, while a large percentage of them go straight to the trash. Last week my co-worker Claire called me into her office to show me a story based on a report that caught both of our attention. The report is called Can Scientists Speak? and was released by national, non-partisan, not-for-profit group Evidence for Democracy (E4D).

The report was based on E4D’s research into the media and communications policies of 16 federal government departments and says that government media policies do not support open and timely communication between scientists and journalists; that they do not protect scientists’ right to freedom of speech; and that they do not protect against political interference in science communication. It graded over 85 per cent of the departments at a C or below, with the Canadian Space Agency, Public Works and Government Services Canada, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., and Natural Resources Canada all receiving a failing grade of F.

Because we’re a community newspaper focusing on issues in, or as close to, our own backyards as possible, I find it’s more common for us to deal with provincial government departments than federal ones when we work on science-based stories. The E4D report doesn’t focus on departments in individual provinces, though, so I’m going to draw from my own experience to tell you what I know about dealing, in general, with government departments that have scientists and science at the heart of their work: It. Is. Frustrating.

Since I started working here, many of you have approached us with interesting science-based stories or projects happening in our area, whether they have to do with fish and wildlife conservation, moose populations, poisonous plants, forestry, or water and air pollutants. We get excited about them, but quickly find our enthusiasm swamped by discouragement as we begin the process of putting the story together.

But alas, this isn’t about me; this is about you. Let me explain.

There is no one better to speak about their research than the scientists actually doing it, yet I can’t recall a time I was granted permission to speak directly to a government employed scientist as part of any story. As journalists, we must go through media relations personnel that are often based in an office well beyond our region, even if the project is a local one. I’m sure this will come as no surprise to you, but on several occasions I’ve had to politely ask that the person on the other end of the phone to please bring up a map of northwestern Ontario on their computer because after a few minutes of conversation I realize they’re completely unfamiliar with our location and geography.

When information is passed from a scientist to someone else, it runs the risk of factual inaccuracy, missing information, and misunderstanding—particularly if the information is passed by way of computers. By the time the information gets to the reader, it’s watered down, often in the form of a vague prepared statement. And more often than not, it comes to us well after our deadline when the story is no longer timely.

At the very least, scientists should be permitted to have the final say on any prepared statements about their work that are released to media.

Government scientists are paid for by your taxes and you deserve to know how your money is spent. You also deserve to know if your government is using science as the basis for the decisions and policies that affect you.

If you agree, please consider signing E4D’s online petition to support open science communication. Visit www.evidencefordemocracy.ca/canscientistsspeak.

Lindsay Briscoe

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