Free Speech For Scientists: Which Country Is More Open - Canada, The US Or China?

  @rpalmerscience on April 13 2013 9:21 AM

Many scientists do not have fond memories of the George W. Bush presidency.

Beginning around the middle of Bush’s eight-year tenure, advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS, started criticizing his administration’s habit of keeping scientists on a short leash and hushing up or altering science that didn’t toe the party line. NASA scientist James Hansen told the New York Times in 2006 that his lectures, papers, writings and interview requests from journalists began going under heavy review by NASA public-affairs officers after he started calling for serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In 2005, a White House official -- and former petroleum-industry lobbyist -- was caught editing climate reports to downplay the links between greenhouse gases and global warming, as reported by the Times.

In one 2005 UCS survey of scientists working for the Fisheries Service of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than one-half of respondents knew of cases where scientific conclusions had been withdrawn or reversed to serve commercial interests.

U.S. scientists are breathing a bit easier under the more relaxed policies of President Barack Obama’s administration, but now their colleagues north of the border say they’re feeling the squeeze.

Want To Talk To A Canadian Researcher About Polar Bears? Take A Number

“The [Stephen] Harper government has taken a page out of the playbook of our former president,” said Francesca Grifo, a science policy fellow with UCS.

Canadian scientists say they are required to go through more and more bureaucratic channels before they can even discuss their work with the press. Reporters frequently have to submit written questions in advance, and scientists are coached to not stray from the government policy stances on issues associated with their work.

“Scientists have been denied permission to speak to the media about studies about Arctic ozone loss, prehistoric floods, and in one case, snow,” Canada's National Post wrote on April 1.

Even when an interview is granted, government staffers often sit in on interviews to keep tabs on researchers. Critics say the array of bureaucratic roadblocks leaves reporters waiting by the phone while deadlines expire.

“Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge,” Nature editors wrote in February of last year.

According to one 2010 report in Nature, researchers have been barred from sharing their work at conferences, and reports on health and climate change intended for the public have been buried -- released without fanfare late on Fridays, and only appearing online after long delays.

Canadian government officials have consistently rejected accusations that it’s muzzling scientists, saying reporters still have access to many federally funded researchers. However, there’s some indication that strains of the outcry have reached the highest offices on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. In April, the Canadian federal information commissioner’s office told seven federal agencies -- including federal departments of defense, environment, fisheries and oceans, as well as the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency -- that it was planning an investigation into the complaints about the alleged muzzling of scientists.

“With the resources of the information commissioner’s office, we hope to get to the bottom of it,” Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Center, told the National Post.

University of Ottawa criminologist Valerie Steeves said there’s a deeper sea change in Canadian science that isn’t just the work of the Harper administration.

“Liberals had been moving to a corporate/commercial view of science before the Conservatives come to power,” Steeves said in an email to International Business Times. “Science and the university in general are being more closely aligned to wealth production, and markers of success are often borrowed from the private sector.”

Steeves pointed to a revamped application process at one of the main sources for federal funding in social science, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Now there’s a greater emphasis on working with public- or private-sector partners.

“Little room in that for critical scholarship or pure knowledge that may be applied in all sorts of unintended ways later,” Steeves said.

Another scientific-freedom issue that’s reared its head in Canada recently is the protection of confidential research information. Social-science researchers often interview people on the wrong side of the law: drug addicts, prostitutes, people who participate in assisted suicides, et al. Without being able to guarantee confidentiality to subjects, researchers have a much tougher time conducting their studies.

Canadian law protects researchers at the national Statistics Canada agency -- akin to the U.S. Census Bureau -- from being forced to divulge confidential information to the courts, but aside from that, most scientists are unshielded.

As a result, “the onus would be on [scientists] to prove on a case-by-case basis that confidential research information should remain confidential,” Simon Fraser University researchers Ted Palys and John Lowman wrote in a 2006 paper for the Canadian Journal of Law and Society.

One recent case that’s pressed this issue centers on University of Ottawa criminologists Christine Bruckert and Colette Parent. One of their studies on sex workers contains an interview with “Jimmy,” an alleged alias of Luka Rocco Magnotta, an adult performer accused of murdering Concordia University student Lin Jun and posting gruesome video of the crime online.

The graduate student who conducted the interview told investigators that “Jimmy” was actually Magnotta, and the police got a warrant to seize a recording of the interview and transcript. Bruckert and Parent are fighting to keep the interview from being used in court, saying their work would be heavily impacted if they couldn’t guarantee confidentiality, as CBC News reported.

“What is particularly egregious is that they conducted the research as employees of the university, in keeping with their job requirements,” Steeves said. “The Canadian Association of University Teachers has stepped in and paid their fees, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to do that again.”

America: Land Of The Free(r) Science

While there is no nationwide shield law protecting U.S. scientists -- or journalists, for that matter -- from being forced to divulge their sources, certain American researchers enjoy a bit more armor in the courts. Researchers who get funding from the U.S. National Institutes of Health can apply for so-called certificates of confidentiality, which are issued on a case-by-case basis.

Scientists in the U.S. are also generally much freer to speak with reporters without prior approval, except those who are working on national-security or certain defense projects.

A UCS scorecard on federal agencies’ media policies released last month gave some of them relatively high marks: A-minus for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and A for both NOAA and the National Science Foundation. Meanwhile, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration got the worst grade, D. In general, UCS said, scientists are freer to express personal views as long as they make clear they’re not speaking for the agency, and there are more protections for scientists who blow the whistle on censorship of information.

However, one area where the U.S. government still lags in transparency is the publication of interagency review, where scientific research is moved between agencies as policy is debated. Because the science is enmeshed with predeliberative documents, it’s exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.

“They can’t reveal one without revealing the other, so they choose to not reveal any,” said Grifo of UCS.

The slow-moving gears of interagency review can delay the availability of scientific assessments for years. In 2008, UCS lambasted a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency policy that allowed other federal agencies such as the Defense Department and NASA -- with clear interests in the scientific risk assessments of chemicals such as perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel -- to have more input and control over the Integrated Risk Information System, or IRIS, a public database that contains toxicological profiles of chemicals. This policy was largely overturned in 2009, as indicated by the EPA.

One possible solution to the problem of increasing transparency would have two separate documents for interagency review: one for the decision-making policy process, and one for the science. Sounds relatively simple, no? But Washington is not exactly known for its swiftness.

“A lot of these things require cultural changes,” Grifo said. “Big federal agencies get used to doing things a certain way.”

Avoiding Political Minefields In China

One might assume that China, with its “Great Firewall” and phalanxes of Internet censors, would be at the forefront of suppressing science in the media. But the reality is a bit more complicated, according to Nelson Kiang, a professor emeritus of physiology at Harvard University. Kiang is an honorary professor at several Chinese universities and advises several Chinese ministries. He also sits on the board of a Chinese journal, and can’t recall any specific instances of a censor cracking down on a scientific paper.

“Most scientific articles would be so technical that the actual censors wouldn’t even recognize the implications of it,” Kiang said in a phone interview.

If a scientist were to stray from basic research into something that criticizes the ruling party, however, that would likely bring down the hammer.

“Purely scientific studies would hardly ever be censored.  However, those that wander into political or economic areas might receive more attention,” Kiang said. “If it’s something that says that the rivers are polluted or that the air quality is so bad that it represents a failure of the central government to see to the health of the people, that might be censored.”

Many journalists in China tend to self-censor. Certain topics -- the Falun Gong, the sale of organs of executed prisoners -- are taboo to reporters and researchers alike. It’s a bit like living in a demilitarized zone.

“You know exactly where the borders of the land mines are, and you don’t go there,” Kiang said.

The Chinese government is also much more technocratic than that of the U.S. or Canada. For a time, all nine members of the standing committee of the Politburo -- the most powerful leaders in China -- were engineers (they’ve recently added some social scientists to liven things up a bit).

“I would guess [climate change] is a higher priority in China than in the U.S,” Kiang said. “Here you have climate deniers in high government positions.”

One of China’s real scientific-freedom problems -- possibly stemming from a government stuffed with engineers -- is a lack of policies that encourage creative thinking, Tsinghua University researcher Peng Gong wrote in Nature last November.

“Personnel and project review should encourage scientific adventure and tolerate failure,” Gong wrote. “Dogmatic budgetary regulations on research projects must be revised to allow flexible requests of personnel, operational and material costs, and to give more freedom to principal investigators.”

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