Silence of the Labs

The complainant, Jon Melanson, considered the Fifth Estate documentary Silence of the Labs, about the demise of various scientific research programs and the shift in government policy on science, a one-sided and biased piece of work. He accused the creators of using selective facts to attack the Conservative government. The documentary provided many relevant facts and presented alternative perspectives about an important public policy issue so that Canadians could draw their own conclusions, as CBC journalistic policy demands.

COMPLAINT

The Fifth Estate broadcast a program that examined the controversy around Conservative government policies on scientific research. You objected to the documentary entitled “Silence of the Labs” and an accompanying article on the website because you felt that it was biased, used selective facts and generally conformed to your view about CBC news and current affairs as anti-Conservative and left-wing.

The documentary spoke to a number of research scientists who had lost their funding and their jobs in a variety of formerly government funded projects. The piece and the article highlighted criticism of the federal government and its approach to research science and its relationship to public policy. Its thesis was that there has been a shift in the way science is funded, and in the priorities around science:

Scientists across the country are expressing growing alarm that federal cutbacks to research programs monitoring areas that range from climate change and ocean habitats to public health will deprive Canadians of crucial information.

“What’s important is the scale of the assault on knowledge, and on our ability to know about ourselves and to advance our understanding of our world,” said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

In the past five years the federal government has dismissed more than 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of programs and world-renowned research facilities have lost their funding. Programs that monitored things such as smoke stack emissions, food inspections, oil spills, water quality and climate change have been drastically cut or shut down.

You had several issues with the work. You felt that the producers of the piece “cherry picked” the facts and the sources used:

Do Prime Minister Harper’s science priorities reflect the best interests of Canada? It’s certainly a question worth asking, but you won’t find the answer by interviewing the folks guaranteed to have the most biased perspective: laid-off scientists and the left-wing union that represents them. Why didn’t the biased CBC mention this? The CBC attacks a government for having a ‘war on facts’, while ironically and hypocritically waging its own very biased, selective same ‘war on facts’.

You dismissed the views and experience of those interviewed as “factless partisan opinion.” You pointed out that funding for science under the Conservative government has increased, and that there are more scientists in Canada than there used to be, so there is greater competition for funding:

Between 2006 and 2011, the Harper administration increased federal funding for science and technology every year  --  a $9 billion spike, according to the “Investing in World-Class Research and Innovation” chapter of Minister Flaherty’s 2013 budget. Even following a slight dip post-2011, overall annual funding still remain billions higher than in the Liberal years, and as Minister Rempel reminded a Twitter troll the other day, the Conservatives are still funneling tonnes of tax dollars to a vast assortment of science-themed bureaucracies across the land, many of which they themselves founded.

You also thought that the use of a graphic of buildings on a map with lights going out to illustrate cancelled programs, and the background music that accompanied it, was further evidence of bias. You characterized the soundtrack as “scary music.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive Producer of The Fifth Estate, Jim Williamson, replied to your concerns. He told you that the basis of this documentary was not a CBC fabrication. He pointed out that the government closure of research projects had prompted public demonstrations and public criticism of government priorities by scientists. “It is a controversial issue, an issue of public interest and concern, and one that we felt would benefit from a closer look.”

He explained that while only a certain number of scientists appear in the broadcast, the researchers spoke to many more with a range of perspectives on these developments. He added that the scientists whose programs were cancelled were internationally recognized experts in their fields. He pointed out that there were “credible and articulate voices” which supported government science policy.

He added that the program producers requested interviews from four government ministers: Peter Kent (former Minister of the Environment), Joe Oliver (then Minister of Natural Resources), Greg Rickford (Minister of State for Science and Technology), and Leona Aglukkaq (current Environment Minister). They also asked several senior bureaucrats for interviews. All declined to appear on camera. Alternative perspectives were represented through Professor Peter Phillips, who is a specialist in public policy and science at the University of Saskatchewan.

Williamson said that the issue was not that the government was spending more, but that the piece dealt with where the money was being allocated. He explained that the purpose of the documentary was to put on the public agenda questions about the direction of science in this country, a question you pose in your letter. He said that while you dismiss the conclusions as left-wing and biased, they are views held by many critical of the direction of policy, they are views that deserve to be heard, and both views were present in the broadcast:

We analyzed the public information available, including making a careful reading of statements made by government ministers and policy-makers. The documentary explained that science-based research funds were being increasingly directed away from a basic research model to a more application-driven model servicing technological development and commercialization intended to enhance the needs of industry and resource development – a significant shift.

He also addressed your criticism of the use of the graphic and the background music that accompanied it. He explained that it is common practice to use visual elements to illustrate information. He added he regretted that you found the music “scary” but that was certainly not the intention.

REVIEW

You question the facts and the balance of this piece. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy to deal with both questions:

Accuracy

We seek out the truth in all matters of public interest. We invest our time and our skills to learn, understand and clearly explain the facts to our audience. The production techniques we use serve to present the content in a clear and accessible manner.

Balance

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

The policy on impartiality states that reporters provide professional judgment based on facts and expertise. This piece, as an investigative documentary, also proposes a thesis. The key point to fulfilling the need for accuracy and balance in putting forward that thesis and analysis is to ensure that opposing facts and different perspectives are presented. The documentary did so.

For example, you wrote that the Harper government actually increased science funding, and the program neglected to mention it. It is mentioned more than once in this piece, whose point was really about the priorities for funding and the relationship between pure and applied research. Linden MacIntyre states:

They (the Conservative government) were actually spending more on science, but there was a fundamental shift in where the money went. Science geared to economic growth would do well. Science raising inconvenient signals about human health, climate change, habitat destruction not so well.

The closing of environmental monitoring programs has been well documented. You cited a blog by Julia Belluz posted on Maclean’s website in July, 2012 as proof that scientists had no reason to complain and protest. What she is really saying is that it is not entirely black and white, that the government has shifted priorities, and it is not the scientists who should set policy, it is the politicians. She acknowledges that there has been a change in attitude, but was providing some perspective about a group of government scientists who staged a public protest because they felt the current government was waging a “war on facts.” She says:

At Maclean’s John Geddes—who has meticulously documented the government’s strained relationship with the scientific community over the years—even discovered RCMP-backed efforts to create science that contradicted the body of peer-reviewed research. An attack on science indeed.

But while rational, evidence-based decision making may be the ideal, one would be hard pressed to find governments that rely solely on science, and we probably wouldn’t want our politicians to operate that way anyway. As this recent comment in the British Medical Journal points out, “Although it may frustrate scientists when politicians are swayed by the possible electoral consequences of various policy options, few scientists (including us) would want to live in a society in which politicians completely ignored the views of those who have elected them as their representatives.”

The very same point is made in the course of Silence of the Labs by Dr. Peter Phillips, a University of Saskatchewan professor who specializes in public policy and science. He says in the course of the documentary:

Science gives us facts and factoids we could use. It doesn’t give us what the threshold should be. No scientist can say this is acceptable, this isn’t. That ultimately is going to be a public choice.

Phillips also points out that other changes introduced by this government, especially dealing with environmental assessment, were welcome and needed changes in policy, a rebalancing of priorities. Of course it would have been far better to hear the policy makers, that is, the politicians, present their perspectives themselves. Mr. Williamson told you that the program requested interviews with four different ministers who were or are involved in this decision making. None of them were available. The program cannot be faulted for going ahead without them, as long as it provided another voice to bring that perspective. It did so. In fact the documentary also includes statements from cabinet ministers based on public appearances they have made.

The program spends a fair bit of time talking to scientists whose programs have been cancelled. Clearly they have a certain perspective on it. Their circumstances are fully revealed, so that viewers can make up their own minds about what weight to give to what they have to say. But to merely to dismiss them as “left-wing” defies the evidence. It is reasonable they would speak passionately about the work they were doing. Their credentials, in some cases with international recognition, are also facts. By presenting these cases, the Fifth Estate documentary puts on the public record a matter of public interest. It is for Canadians to decide the merits of the direction of research. And The Fifth Estate certainly has not been alone in documenting or pointing out a pattern of strained relations between Canadian scientists and the government. The international science journal Nature has called the government to task for its control of Canadian scientists and their ability to speak out.

As for bias in the use of the graphic and music in the production, I find that it does not go outside the norm of documentary standards. As Mr. Williamson pointed out, 2,000 jobs and hundreds of programs were represented by buildings on a map. Television works in shorthand – and this was a creative way to show the scope of the changes. How one hears music is of course subjective. In the first use of the graphic and music, I thought it was rather upbeat. The second use was a little lower key, but hardly ominous.

You seem to think that there are only two ways to characterize any political disagreement, and that anything critical, especially on CBC, is a left wing attack on the government of the day. CBC language policy discourages “left and right wing” as descriptors because it tends to oversimplify matters that are complex. Journalistic staff is encouraged to lay out the issues, and let the audience decide. This documentary explores attitudes toward science, scientific research and public policy. It did not put this matter on the agenda. Canadian scientists themselves have been voicing concerns about the direction of science. The Conservative move toward more applied research and commercialization is also on the record. In the online piece “Research cutbacks by government alarm scientists” there was a quote from a statement provided by the current minister of State for Science and Technology, Greg Rickford:

“Our government has made record investments in science,” it stated. “We are working to strengthen partnerships to get more ideas from the lab to the marketplace and increase our wealth of knowledge. Research is vibrant and flourishing right across the country.”

It is a legitimate policy debate for Canadians to think about where the balance lies. The Fifth Estate piece contributes to that debate. It featured the perspective of affected scientists; its information and conclusions were based on facts, and it provided other perspectives. There was no violation of policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman