Government scientific integrity issues in Canada and the U.S. – Earthbeat Radio interview


The Canadian government appears to be politically filtering scientific information. And while the Obama administration is an improvement over its predecessor on scientific integrity, there remain unresolved issues, including federal agencies being more than a year late with new protections called for by the President. We talked with Earthbeat Radio in Washington, DC.On September 21, Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz talked with program host Daphne Wysham on Earthbeat Radio, an independent weekly program produced out of Pacifica Radio’s WPFW-FM studio in Washington, DC, and syndicated to more than 50 stations nationwide.

Podcast of the September 21 program.  The interview begins at 37:45 into the 57-minute program and continues to 55:10.

A partial, and lightly edited, transcript of the interview:

Earthbeat: The Conservative Canadian government has apparently taken a cue from the Bush Administration and is requiring all government scientists to submit their work to political review. Joining me to discuss what is happening in Canada is Rick Piltz….What is going on in Canada with regard to climate science? This sounds like déjà vu all over again.

RP: The Harper government appears to be very much into message control, even with scientific information. It has come out that government scientists in Canada, with the government’s natural resources agency, are required to get a political level, ministerial level pre-clearance before they have any contacts with journalists, with the media, to discuss their research or any related scientific issues.

There are a number of sensitive issues this would apply to – climate change, oil sands environmental issues, polar bear populations. But apparently even one scientist whose work had to do with flooding in northern Canada near the end of the last Ice Age, 13,000 years ago, and who had a major study published in Nature, a leading science journal, had to go through a political approval before talking.

Earthbeat: So they’re not allowed to talk about climate science, even if it’s 13,000 years ago.

RP: Apparently it’s across the board. Apparently, in one internal communication that came out, a scientist was told: you may think it’s just data, your scientific research, but maybe it has some policy implications, some implications for public discussion of the issues. Maybe it’s politically sensitive.

Earthbeat: How did this come to light? Did the scientists revolt against this policy of censorship?

RP: It’s just come out in the last few days, although the policy has been in place for a number of months, behind the scenes. There have been problems with the Harper government from the beginning. But it’s just come out in the Canadian media in the past few days. Documents have been made available through the use of their freedom of information law. People have been careful about saying who’s gone forward with what. I think there’s probably an atmosphere of political pressure, perhaps some intimidation. Most scientists aren’t boat-rockers, but somehow they’re fed up enough that this story is getting out, that there’s this political control of the dissemination of scientific information.

Earthbeat: Now, in terms of the United States, do you think this level of climate science censorship has ended, now that we’re in a different administration, or is it still ongoing?

RP: I think the current administration has to be seen as an improvement in a number of ways over the Bush-Cheney administration, on science integrity and on climate policy. But that’s setting the bar rather low. I mean, you don’t make these problems go away just by changing an election result.

President Obama made a very good speech at the beginning of his administration on scientific integrity, and he tasked the heads of the executive agencies and his White House science adviser to come up with a scientific integrity policy by the end of summer 2009 that would guide federal action – to make sure the scientific research is done with integrity, and to make sure there is no political interference with the communication of the science, and that the process of how they’re using the scientific evidence in policymaking is transparent.

That was due 14 months ago and we haven’t seen those scientific integrity guidelines. It’s not clear why, but my sense is that it’s politically sensitive, how to specify guidelines to prevent political interference. Interior Secretary Salazar came out with his scientific integrity policy, it’s been out for public review for the past several weeks, and it deals only with malfeasance by government scientists – plagiarism, falsification of data, scientific misconduct. It completely ignored what has been the actual documented problem, which is the political interference.

Earthbeat: It’s essentially putting the onus back on the scientists, saying don’t do these things that are wrong, but it’s not talking about how the government should handle sensitive scientific information.

RP: That’s right. There’s no transparency, there’s no ‘scientists have a right to communicate,’ there’s no whistleblower protection, there’s no guarantee that you won’t have political censorship. It’s as though that’s not a problem. And I think it’s hard for them to address that problem in a way that will really pin it down. So we don’t have the guidelines, and as a result – it’s not even necessarily White House officials, but down in the trenches, with career feds who are involved in politically sensitive decisionmaking on regulatory isses, on environmental issues, the tendency is to control the message.

Earthbeat: The thing that was most shocking to me was the way the federal government responded after the BP spill, saying that 75 percent of the oil had disappeared – and now we’re hearing there are conflicting studies suggesting that quite a bit of the oil from the BP disaster is settling on the ocean floor. Do you feel the government is perhaps responding hastily with assessments of – whether it’s disasters or climate science – in a way that is putting out a political message that is in favor of the industries?

RP: I think that’s possible, it’s not entirely clear. Clearly it was a very difficult situation all the way around, but added to that, they were consistently lowballing the amount of oil that was being blown out. At first they said it was 5,000 or 6,000 barrels per day, but actually it was ten times that much. The estimates were always low and they had to keep going up.

When Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, another watchdog group here, using the Freedom of Information Act, asked for documentation of how they kept arriving at these underestimates, and how they arrived at their assertions that so much of the oil is gone, when it’s not at all clear that it’s gone, the Obama Administration refused to turn over the documents. So PEER has filed a federal lawsuit to demand some transparency on how this was done. You can understand how people are under pressure on something like this, but if the first impulse is to spin and not put out truthful scientific data, or to try to cover up your mistakes afterward, then the public loses out.

Earthbeat: We’ve been speaking quite a bit about science censorship at the upper levels of government agencies. But what about at the middle level, where you have a bureaucrat who doesn’t want a particular study to rock the boat. What can scientists do in that instance?

RP: This is why you need formal scientific integrity guidelines that can be enforced. Because otherwise you have an ad hoc situation. I think a lot of the problem is in the bureaucratic culture, it doesn’t have to be an oil industry lobbyist in the White House. It could be a study that isn’t convenient, that could have results and generate public discussion that point in a direction against government policy, whether it’s more regulatory or less regulatory on that issue. So senior level feds might have a tendency to say, let’s not put that study out right now, let’s hold that study until –

Earthbeat: – after the election.

RP: “Do you really need to come up with these findings? You know, if we list this species as endangered there’s going to be so much criticism from the landowners.” There are a lot of things that can go on. And the scientist is usually conflict-averse. The whistleblower lawyers and advocates have never really figured out a way to protect people from career retaliation internally, subtle forms of retaliation for boat-rockers. But at some point people just have to make the decision, as citizens, to speak the truth, even if it involves taking some risk. We don’t get as much speaking out as we need in order to make the system function better.

Earthbeat: Unless you’re someone like James Hansen, who has such international renown. He was willing to take the risk. But perhaps some of the lesser-known scientists aren’t willing to do those things.

RP: I think that’s true. For one thing, he’s a really special individual who doesn’t take too much before he pushes back. On the other hand, he knew he could go to the New York Times and it would be of interest. I think most people who find themselves in a situation where the government won’t put their work out, or won’t do a press release, or misrepresents it, feel that, if they make a public issue of it, it won’t make any difference, people won’t pay attention, it won’t really have any effect, the politics will run over them, their career will be screwed up, they won’t get the promotion, they’ll lose the job, they won’t be able to keep up the mortgage payment, they won’t be able to pay the tuition. So they let it go, they back off. And that’s how the system keeps people intimidated.

Earthbeat: In the final minute, let’s return to the issue of how to get the Obama Administration to define clear rules. What can be done to make sure that is pursued avidly at the federal level, that we really see a strong policy?

RP: I would like to see the public interest community, the environmental community, pay a little more attention to these science and science policy issues. People need to push the Obama Administration. The Obama Administration needs watchdogs. Everybody does. Even if you’re basically supportive, you’ve got to push them on this and you’ve got to follow up with oversight on how they implement it.

Related CSW posts:

Proposed Interior Dept scientific integrity policy fails to address political abuse of science (September 20)

Canada’s ‘creeping authoritarianism’ in political pre-screening of scientists’ media contact (September 19)

Lawsuit seeks answers to why Obama Administration officials lowballed BP oil blowout estimates (September 17)

Also, on the September 28 Earthbeat podcast:

James Hansen speaks on his arrest for protesting mountaintop removal

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3 Responses to Government scientific integrity issues in Canada and the U.S. – Earthbeat Radio interview

  1. Agan Kunic says:

    I am very interested in opposition to the “northern gateway” pipeline project from northern Alberta’s tar sands to Kitimat on the central coast of BC. It crosses 5 major and pristine river valleys along it’s 1700 km. route to supply China with bitumen. Any affiliate organizations that you know of in Canada or BC that you could direct me to? PM Harper has and continues to muzzle the entire scientific community in Canada. He seems to fear anyone who thinks or communicates what he knows. Thank you and keep up your work, it is impressive.

  2. R Lewis says:

    There is a huge difference between overall carelessness and plain deception. I think the Obama administration has been pretty transparent about scientific data in general. In the US, I don’t feel like the environment is put at the pedestal it should be. However, I am surprised that the Canadian government took such an approach. Maybe one day people in power will see honesty as a virtue.

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