Communication
March 17, 2014

Communicating science

Canada is seen around the world as a leader in science and innovation. It is no exaggeration to say that our reputation in this area can be attributed, to a great extent, to the valuable work of federal government scientists, including the contributions of the scientists and researchers of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan).

Recently some media have suggested that government scientists are being prevented from making the results of their work available to interested groups and to the public at large. My own direct experience contradicts this claim.

Science has little or no value if held within government or confined to our laboratories. Benefits are generated where our science is shared and its value realized through our policies, our programs, our networks and our communications.

NRCan scientists are professionals who conduct science for the purpose of sharing and disseminating knowledge for the benefit of the country. And our expertise is in high demand.

NRCan scientists, in fact, produce about 500 peer-reviewed articles a year, which is a remarkable contribution to informed decision-making. In addition, NRCan scientists and researchers regularly participate in academic conferences to discuss the results of their work and to share findings with other partners and researchers.

This past October, NRCan co-hosted the International Boreal Forest Research Association Conference in Edmonton. During the conference, researchers from NRCan’s Canadian Forest Service presented a series of papers that explore how climate change is affecting Canada’s three million square kilometres of boreal forest. This research will help Canadians, including land managers, have an informed discussion about key issues in Canada’s boreal zone and is an important part of developing and managing our resources responsibly. All 12 papers in the series were presented at the conference. Seven of these studies have already been published, with the rest to follow in the coming months. And this is just one example of many.

Natural Resources Canada is committed to celebrating the work of its researchers and making it known. NRCan’s website, particularly the Science @ NRCan section linked from our homepage, prominently features our science and our scientists.

Not surprisingly, our science often attracts media interest. Where there are requests for added information about published research, or where we feel that our research would interest a wider audience, we connect the media with our researchers. Over the past year, NRCan scientists provided over 320 interviews. In some areas of our work, for example, earthquake monitoring, designated scientists have blanket authorization to take calls from the media and to address their field of expertise. As a result, our designated experts often answer calls from the media if an earthquake happens in the middle of the night.

That is not to say that our scientists, or indeed any public servant, are authorized to speak to the media or in public venues on any subject at any time. There are three key reasons for this:

First, professional discipline. NRCan scientists appreciate that science is disseminated to the public and to the media only once results are firmly demonstrated or peer reviewed. This derives from well-established standards and practices.

Second, government-wide communications policy. The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada is clear that ministers are the principal spokespersons for the government and that senior management in each department is responsible for designating knowledgeable staff to speak in an official capacity on subjects for which they have responsibility and expertise. In other words, where a scientist or any other public servant engages with the media, he or she does so as an expert spokesperson on behalf of the government. It is not the prerogative of public servants, scientists or others, to engage spontaneously with the media without training and without proper authorization. Media training is needed to help designated spokespersons clearly articulate their findings for a non-specialist audience.

Access by media to researchers must be coordinated in the context of a rapidly evolving media environment where issues often have impact beyond the scope of any one department. NRCan must be prepared for potential follow-up requests. This may take time, but it is necessary to ensure that we function as an organization that speaks to Canadians with a coordinated voice.

Third, our code of values and ethics. We are a non-partisan public service. Where called upon, within established policies, scientists will inform media and the public about the substance of their work. It is inconsistent with our role and our values to share personal opinions about matters of policy. Doing so, ultimately, would compromise our integrity and credibility. There are different mechanisms whereby advice is provided for policymaking that are also grounded in our values as a non-partisan public service.

Since I became the deputy minister of Natural Resources Canada in October of 2010, I am aware of no instance in which direction was given to researchers to alter or suppress the results of their work or to prevent them from disseminating, through well-established professional and public service standards and policies, the results of their work.

NRCan, first and foremost, is a science-based organization. We are well-grounded in the values of the public service. We strive to develop science that is relevant, high quality, with benefits for Canadians. The processes we employ to communicate our science serve to bring clarity and accuracy on the important matters for which we have responsibility and expertise.

As public servants, it is essential that our scientists and professionals communicate with one voice. In other words, when our scientists or any other public servant engages with the media, he or she does so as an expert spokesperson on behalf of the government of Canada.

This approach ensures that communications throughout NRCan, and indeed, across the government of Canada, are well coordinated, effectively managed and responsive to the diverse information needs of the public.

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