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01/11/2014

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Don't speak!

Shorts Editor Dr Joanna Carpenter rounds up the latest engagement stories.

Don’t speak!

The Office of the Information Commissioner in Canada has launched an investigation into an official complaint that the Canadian Government is ‘muzzling scientists’.

The complaint was filed by the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria and a non-profit, non-partisan citizen advocacy group named Democracy Watch.

The Office of the Information Commissioner in Canada has launched an investigation into an official complaint that the Canadian Government is ‘muzzling scientists’.

The complaint was filed by the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Victoria and a non-profit, non-partisan citizen advocacy group named Democracy Watch.

'No such thing'

The Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, told People & Science that he welcomes the investigation: ‘There is no such thing happening in Canada, and I look forward to working with the Information Commissioner… to show exactly that.’

He defended policies requiring scientists employed in government research establishments to obtain approval from press offices before speaking to the press: ‘We have to remember we’re talking about civil servants here. Ministers are primarily responsible for their departments.’

He was also concerned to maximize the return to the taxpayer. ‘No government would be just ultimately allowing this knowledge that has been created at the expense of the taxpayer just to be sent anywhere at any time,’ he said.

Silence after earthquake

Tom Spears, science reporter at the Ottawa Sun, is cited in the official complaint as having had difficulty obtaining information on research into radar measurements of snowstorms. He told People & Science about a separate incident from June 2010 when Ottawa experienced a magnitude 5 earthquake.

‘For nearly five hours after, the top level of the ministry that has the earthquake scientists was putting out written orders telling them not to answer any questions from any news media,’ he said. In his view, this exemplifies the trend.

Spears subsequently discovered two hours were spent translating media lines and clearing them with an assistant deputy minister and the Privy Council Office (akin to the UK Cabinet Office) before release.

Goodyear believes examples put to him by People & Science are isolated instances and dismissed allegations in the official complaint of ‘an orchestrated campaign at the federal level,’ saying, ‘These are their views, and they’re not substantiated with the totality of the evidence.’

The Information Commissioner of Canada is an ombudsperson. She reports directly to Parliament and primarily uses mediation and persuasion to resolve complaints. All parties to an investigation may make representations.

The investigation will consider whether government policies on media relations that ‘restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public… are impeding the right of access to information.’

Tell all!

Sir Mark Walport has taken over as Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) from Sir John Beddington and has begun to set out his priorities.

Speaking at the Royal Society at a conference organized by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, he said that his five priorities were translating knowledge for economic advantage, infrastructure resilience, underpinning policy with evidence, dealing with emergencies, and providing advocacy and leadership for science. By science, he stressed that he meant science, engineering, technology and social science.

Sir Mark Walport has taken over as Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) from Sir John Beddington and has begun to set out his priorities.

Speaking at the Royal Society at a conference organized by the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy, he said that his five priorities were translating knowledge for economic advantage, infrastructure resilience, underpinning policy with evidence, dealing with emergencies, and providing advocacy and leadership for science. By science, he stressed that he meant science, engineering, technology and social science.

Transparent advice

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, he was asked by Jim Dowd MP whether the government should publish all the scientific advice it uses in determining policy. Walport responded, ‘Wherever possible. It should be normal for that evidence to be published... The best way to communicate is if the evidence is symmetrically available, if I could put it that way, so that everyone can scrutinize it.’

Walport did not think publication would inhibit the advice he offered, and recognized security considerations as an exception, as well as when advice was based on partial information, perhaps in advance of publication.

However, he wanted to establish a dividing line between the scientific advice and the final ministerial decision: ‘[My role] is to provide the best scientific advice, but… there may well be other considerations, including political considerations and others, which will determine which way the political decision eventually goes.’

Open access

Walport went on to express support for Open Access: ‘The more openly science is communicated, and the more the scientific community weigh in after science is published [the better]; peer review needs to happen after science is published as well [as before],’ he told the committee.

Leadership

At the Royal Society meeting, Walport told the audience that he saw engaging the public as part of his leadership role. ‘Of course… the public is not generic… There is no single “public”. We are all “the public”. There are a lot of different constituencies.…It’s not about correcting the deficit in knowledge. It’s not about us educating an ignorant community,’ he said.

Trust and reason

He was also careful to spell out some of the limits and constraints on public engagement: ‘Trust is… very specific. .. It’s not “trust me I’m a scientist”, it’s trust in a particular context.’

He continued, ‘One of the challenges for us is that, sadly, rational arguments will not always, or indeed completely, work. But that is not an exhortation for us to respond in an irrational fashion. It’s just to recognize that this is a difficult problem; there is no single magic bullet.’

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Dr Joanna Carpenter
Dr Joanna Carpenter is the Shorts Editor of People & Science
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