Most people who know me might think that since I have a pretty strong view about what limitations on freedom of speech look like and don’t look like for government workers, and that I even blog about stuff related to government, I would likely tilt against the current windmill of supposed Government censorship or muzzling of “scientists”. The argument is aptly captured in the press:
Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate how government communications rules on taxpayer-funded science impact public access to information. Legault is responding to a detailed complaint lodged by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch.
Their lengthy report — “Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?” — laid out repeated examples of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to pre-packaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.
The complaint alleges that by keeping government scientists from speaking out about their work, the public is denied the chance to request records — because no one is ever made aware they exist in the first place
“This should make it possible for civil servants, and government scientists specifically, to speak freely to the information commissioner,” said Sandborn. “We have indications that there is very, very broad discontent amongst scientists about being muzzled and having their research suppressed.”
(For more detail see: Information watchdog to investigate policies that ‘muzzle’ government scientists | CTV News.)
The argument from the windmill-tilters is pretty straight forward:
- Science is pure, non-political
- Science research by government is paid for by taxpayers
- Taxpayers should have access to science research they paid for
- Ergo, government scientists should always be able to talk to the press and all research reports should be readily available.
Well, let’s look at those premises a bit more closely.
Science is pure and non-political? Actually, it is not and never has been. What a scientist chooses to study and what they decide is relevant or significant is as fraught with personal subjective choice as any field of endeavour. It’s why they teach courses like “researcher bias” for scientists and “policy myopia” for policy wonks. This is totally separate too from the internal politics of any organization, non-governmental or governmental, that researchers think their work is the most important and that they should be fully funded, no reason to budget or conserve resources or fund-raise. They’re “pure” scientists after all. Or, if you really want to see how “non-political” science is, ask them to check another scientist’s work — after they get through explaining how the person was wrong from the point of birth up to interpreting their results, you’ll realize very quickly it is far from pure, and very political (since funding requires support and awareness of others). And “facts”, such as they are, never speak for themselves.
It’s taxpayer-funded therefore it should be immediately available. I don’t disagree that it should be available, but someone has to decide “when”. Why does the scientist decide that? No other part of government — or any employer actually — does that, why would scientists? Instead, I have a lot of other questions I want answered first. Is it about health and safety? Is it a national emergency? Has it been vetted by a peer review committee? Has it been duplicated by other experts in the field? Is it comprehensive? Did it take into account other factors that might explain the same situation? Are the numbers understandable or do they need a lot of context to avoid being misinterpreted leading people to both conclude something that is false and react too soon? See above where the “purity” isn’t guaranteed.
Taxpayers should have access. Generally, that’s a good principle. Unless of course the project was flawed. Or has a national security dimension. The experts in the above article argue, “Well, if the scientists can’t talk about their work, we don’t even know what documents to ask for”. Soooo, you’re saying unless a scientist tells you they did some work related to climate change, you don’t know to ask for studies about climate change? Really? Here’s a suggestion — read the freaking website. Or the budget documents. Or the department’s performance reports. Maybe even ask for reports by scientists on major topics. This isn’t rocket science (except, well, when it is about rocket science).
I also have a lot of trouble with a bunch of wonks (science or policy) who think their judgement of what is important, relevant and ready-for-taxpayer-consumption is better than that of the elected politicians that are actually in charge. If you don’t like working for government, trot yourself off to an academic institution and do your own research. That government paycheque you get comes with an attachment — being a government employee. Just as P&G researchers don’t get to blab about whatever they’re working on, government employees of all categories don’t get to talk about their work and the content of their files just because they feel like it. In fact, being a taxpayer-funded individual doesn’t lower the bar, it raises it higher.
I’m often surprised that otherwise intelligent people don’t understand even the basic tenets of working for government and what that entails, and assume they should substitute their judgement for that of their bosses. One of the basic premises of politics and bureaucracy and having been elected is that as a Minister, you get to decide what is a priority or not and even what the criteria are for deciding if something is relevant or not. Don’t like it? Run for office and make the decisions yourself. But it is not your job as the civil servant to do it for the politically-elected types.
By contrast, if a scientist wanted to take up blogging as a personal hobby to talk about scientific issues outside of their direct work area, and someone wanted to curtail that type of behaviour, I’m be happy to join the windmill crowd. But when a bunch of scientists tell me “this is a really big important issue”, and they create a website to show how important and serious it is, but call it “safetyeh”, I’m pretty sure I don’t want those yahoos talking to anyone on behalf of the government. I’m not even sure they should be in charge of representing themselves.