Communication and Science

snelgroveCommunication is vital to science and to science helping society. Society depends on science to tell it what is true and what is false. Good science requires discourse – the presentation of ideas and supporting data and then discussion of that idea and other possible interpretations.

Albert Einstein once said “A person who never makes a mistake is someone who has never tried anything new”, and this is exactly how science works. We collect information, we analyse and interpret it, and then put it out there for our colleagues to examine and debate. This strategy creates a system of checks and balances. Sometimes we’re right and sometimes our colleagues tell us we’re wrong. And it means we can build on each other’s work. And that’s okay – it is how science works.  And that is why good science MUST be disseminated without filters. We put our ideas out there and the rest of the science community acts as judge and jury.

When I write these words I don’t claim to speak for my employer, Memorial University. I am expressing my views based on my knowledge and experiences, and Memorial University accepts that relationship. The Canadian federal government has a long standing reluctance about scientists speaking directly to the public without first obtaining permission. I can certainly appreciate that no federal minister or Prime Minister wants their own employees saying something that embarrasses them or makes them look foolish. But in recent years that rule has been more strictly enforced to the point that employees fear they might risk losing their jobs if they speak to the press without permission. Whether their fear is justified,  it certainly is real and pervasive.

In my own experience I have been involved in press events or public discussions where we wanted to include federal government collaborators. The findings were in no way controversial or embarrassing to anyone, but my federal colleagues struggled to obtain permission to participate and the events went forward without them. A real shame because these excellent scientists deserve recognition for their important contributions.

I suspect the vast majority of federal scientists have good common sense with no desire to make anyone look foolish or to represent anyone other than themselves unless instructed to do so. The views of an individual should not be assumed to reflect the views of their department or governments unless they state as much. For example, if a federal scientist publicly reports scientific findings without proselytizing the policy implications of those findings then we should view that as a very good thing. This approach works just fine for United States federal scientists, for examples, who are free to express their own views as long as they focus on the basic facts and don’t claim to speak on behalf of anyone else. THAT is a healthy and effective communication policy.

Paul Snelgrove, Ph.D.

Memorial University of Newfoundland