Federal scientists concerned about media access

The union that represents federal government scientists is speaking out about what it sees as the government’s declining respect for science – and one of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada’s concerns is tightening restrictions on “media and public access to scientists.”

That’s a concern that has already been expressed from the media side. Kathryn O’Hara, president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and a Carleton University journalism professor, argued in a recent opinion piece published online by Nature that such restrictions are a disservice to science and the public. John Geddes made a similar argument in Maclean’s.

The federal union expressed its concern about that issue, along with others such as reduced science funding and the recent cancellation of the mandatory long-form census, as it launched PublicScience.ca, a new website designed to “underline the importance of science for the public good and to mobilize scientists and the public to press politicians to make a clear commitment to policies that support public science.”

Gary Corbett, president of the institute and himself a scientist, told J-Source the institute has made similar efforts to promote public science in the past, but is renewing its efforts with a focus on evidence-based decision-making and the role of scientists in public policy.

On the subject of media access to government scientists, Corbett said there is a place for rules and procedures, but reporters and scientists need to talk directly to each other.

“There’s a science process and peer review and there’s a piece, a body, of work that comes out,” said Corbett. “It should go through a process within the department before somebody’s allowed to speak to media, and then a scientist should do it – a scientist should do it or a designated person that can respond to scientific queries.”

That’s important because the public want the real story, Corbett said. “Media who aren’t scientists need to get the story straight for the public and so that’s why it’s really important” that reporters have access to scientists who can help them understand the science.

Asked about the risk of the news media oversimplifying or outright misrepresenting science stories – which some have cited as an argument against scientists talking to reporters – Corbett acknowledged that science can be hard for non-scientists to understand, but argued that the solution is to try to bridge the gap. There’s a similar problem with politicians, most of whom are non-scientists, not always understanding the science that should inform some of their decisions, he said.

General assignment journalists covering science journalists have a new resource to turn to in The Science Media Centre, which aims to help scientists and writers connect. It
is an independent, not-for-profit organization that wants to help
general assignment reporters access the experts and evidence-based
research they need to cover science in the news (i.e. the new marine

Corbett expressed some concern that science isn’t playing as much of a role in policy making as it should in Canada. The elimination of the mandatory long-form census – a decision Corbett said has seriously upset many union members who work at Statistics Canada – is one example.

In announcing PublicScience.ca, the institute expressed concern not only about media access to government scientists but about public access. Asked what that means, Corbett said he is concerned that ”the employer is not publishing, not talking about the great work done by scientists.”  One reason for that is budget cuts, he suggested, while another may be that the government may see some of the scientists’ work as politically unpopular. For example, said Corbett, scientists involved in regulation may be seen as anti-business.

The institute hopes PublicScience.ca can help fill the gap by telling stories of government scientists’ work.

And what response does he expect from the government? “I don’t think we’ll be very well liked,” he says, “but my members won’t put anything in there that will jeopardize their careers. We’ll make sure about that.”

Read The Globe and Mail’s report on PublicScience.ca