It was an unexpected response to a series of follow-up questions about electrochromic windows at the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) that has* given me the excuse to discuss censorship and science in Canada.
I’ll start with the windows. I participated in a pre-AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2012 annual meeting event in February held by the University of British Columbia. The event was a tour of UBC’s relatively new (opened Nov. 2011) CIRS facility. It was very popular and there were at least 40 of us present.Here’s a little more information from the CIRS About page,
CIRS activities have a regional focus and a global reach. Located on the UBC campus in Vancouver, British Columbia, CIRS is a hub of excellence around green design and building operations practices. We bring thought leaders from UBC and our region together to create and test solutions that work at home, and then share our experiences and knowledge with the public and professionals from across our province and around the world. [emphasis mine] A typical day at CIRS generates many interesting conversations and ideas.
Documenting our activities and communicating our lessons and successes are priorities at CIRS.
We use this website as our primary communication vehicle, showcasing the building design and construction process and the exciting research underway at CIRS. Through this website we aim to build a community of professional and interested people who can connect, share ideas and further accelerate sustainability. [emphasis mine]
We also connect with individuals face-to-face as much as possible through symposiums, workshops, building tours and other events held in the interactive spaces at CIRS.
During the course of the tour there was some discussion about community-building, outreach, etc. and we were informed that the facility is testing a couple of electrochromic windows, amongst other things. Later, I did ask for more information about the electrochromic windows at CIRS and was promptly rewarded with this from Ann L. Campbell,
My colleague Brian Lin passed along your question regarding the electrochromic windows at UBC. Here is the response I received from Alberto Cayuela, the Associate Director of CIRS. He kindly answered my question (what are these windows?) as well as your question regarding their use at CIRS:
We have a limited number of electrochromic windows in the building (fourth floor southwest corner). We are planning to do some research on them in partnership with BC Hydro. Essentially this technology enables the glass to darken or light when a low-voltage electric current is applied to the glass. There are energy benefits associated with blocking or letting heat through windows depending on the time of the year and desired outcome.
I invite you to join the community at www.cirs.ubc.ca where we will post research projects and results as they are undertaken.
The answer excited my curiosity since I’ve written about ‘smart’ windows a number of times, most recently in a Sept. 16, 2011 posting about Boris Lamontagne’s work at the Canada National Research Council and in a Sept. 7, 2011 posting about WANDA, the nanocrystal robot and its role in one of the US Dept. of Energy’s projects with electrochromic windows so I sent back more questions.
After waiting two weeks for a reply, I resent the questions and got a response this morning,
I’m sorry that we are not going to be able to help you with your questions right now. There is no other information available beyond what I sent previously and what is in the online CIRS Technical Manual (and I know that is not much).
Good luck with your blog. I’m sorry we are not able to contribute.
Ann L. Campbell
Manager of Communications
UBC Sustainability Initiative
They aren’t able to answer these questions, eh? From my Feb. 21 and March 6, 2012 email request:
Perhaps you could direct me to someone who could answer more specific questions about these windows for publication in my blog. It’s a topic I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions and am hugely excited to hear about this research. Here are the questions:
Who is answering these questions? (Perhaps include a brief bio.?)
Are these windows both electrochromic & photochromic?
Where did you get these windows from and what specific technology do they demonstrate? Could you describe that technology in more detail? e.g. Switch Materials, a local company offers electrochromic and photochromic films for windows or Boris Lamontagne at the NRC has a project with glass that includes curling electrodes, etc.
Exactly how big are these electrochromic windows and what percentage of the windows in the CIRS are electrochromic?
What kind of research are you doing with regard to these windows? Are you measuring their effectiveness, their aesthetic impact, the quality of light and its impact on wellbeing, etc.?
How many pilot programmes for electrochromic/photochromic windows are there in BC? (Is the one at CIRS the only one?)
Is BC Hydro hoping to encourage consumer use of these windows? Are they hoping this is the wave of the future?
I’m not sure why they weren’t willing answer at least a few of these questions, which seem relatively unexceptional, or even supply a reason of some kind for the failure to share information. It seems odd given their mandate which emphasizes outreach and communication.
I did look at the technical manual for the building and Campbell quite correctly noted that it doesn’t provide answers to my questions. I checked the information on lighting and searched for the terms ‘windows’ and ‘electrochromic windows’ in the building manual (the search function does not seem to be working).
The response from Campbell is a pretty standard bureaucratic response (I must give her credit for being significantly more polite than many others). The problem starts with the organization’s stated mandate of ‘sharing’. I am assuming the intentions are good but the execution is a problem as it often is with mandates that include words such as ‘sharing’, ‘interactivity’, ‘openness’, and/or ‘community building’, etc. in situations where that is not always possible.
There is another issue: a communications manager is acting as an interface or gatekeeper to the scientists. Note: I’m not familiar with UBC or CIRS policies regarding direct contact with scientists. Campbell may have been acting as an interface or gatekeeper as a consequence of my initial request which was made to Brian Lin of UBC’s Public Affairs group, although the result seems roughly the same whether Campbell’s role as gatekeeper was intentional or accidental. It should be noted that she never explicitly denied access to a scientist and even if I did get access, there is no guarantee I would have received any answers (scientists aren’t always willing to talk). Still, could Campbell’s response be described as censorship? Before I try to answer that question, I’m going to touch on another situation.
Over the last few years the Canadian government has intentionally instituted a new strategy of insisting a communications professional act as an interface to government scientists. This ‘new’ practice has become a sore point for Canadian journalists who have described it as ‘muzzling scientists’. I certainly haven’t been happy about this added hurdle to getting questions answered as I noted most recently in my Jan. 24, 2012 posting but I’m still considering whether the practice could be described as censorship or not.
The AAAS 2012 annual meeting in Vancouver hosted an event about the ‘science muzzle’ and it was SRO (standing room only). I didn’t attend largely because it had a certain fevered quality I associate with mobs but it has stimulated a fair degree of discussion. Here’s a description of the session from the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada webpage titled Unmuzzling Government Scientists,
Across Canada, journalists are being denied access to publicly funded scientists and the research community is frustrated with the way government scientists are being muzzled. Some observe that it is part of a trend that has seen the Canadian government tighten control over how and when federal scientists interact with the media. As a result, media inquiries are delayed, and scientists are less present in coverage of research in Canada.
In 2008, Environment Canada ordered its scientists to refer all media queries to Ottawa, where communications officers and strategists would decide if the scientist could respond and help craft “approved media lines”.
Stories written for the CBC, Postmedia news, the journal Nature and others have then revealed how these communication restrictions had spread to other government departments.
And the situation is somewhat similar in the United States. A recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review details how restrictive practices established by George W. Bush’s administration still hold under the current government.
This panel will be an occasion to better understand the friction between the media and the governments.
Are the tightened communication strategies symptomatic of a worldwide trend in public and private sectors? Are they justified?
How do obstructions in communications with scientists compromise science research progression and undermine democracy? And in the end, what can be done to improve the situation?
The February 17, 2012 posting on the Scientific Canadian blog provides some insight into these ‘obstructions’ (I have removed some links),
I’ve had my own experiences with the phenomenon. Last spring, I interviewed Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick about how cold stratospheric temperatures led to more ozone depletion than usual in 2011. Although he was quite willing to talk to me, government policy required my questions to be submitted in advance by e-mail, and his written responses vetted by Environment Canada’s media relations department; I never did speak to him in person, and couldn’t ask any follow-up questions. More importantly, the whole process took about two weeks. If I had been writing for a daily publication instead of a monthly, the delay would have been unacceptably long. By contrast, his co-author on the paper, the University of Toronto’s Kaley Walker, was able to talk to me on the phone within 24 hours. But I was lucky; a few months later Postmedia News was prevented from speaking with Tarasick altogether.
Even though Environment Canada communication professionals eventually refused access to Tarasick, does that action constitute censorship? According to David Bruggeman’s Mar. 3, 2012 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog, the answer is no,
I am not trying to defend the Canadian government. There is plenty to disagree with about their policies of limiting the dissemination of government conducted research results. But because they allow this research to be published, the problem is one of transparency, and not of censorship. It doesn’t help those seeking to change the policies to call the bad behavior something it isn’t. Utilize Canadian open records and open government laws (whatever might be the equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act) to fight for the information.
It might be helpful to know this about David Bruggeman, from Pasco Phronesis blog About page,
I have over 12 years experience in U.S. federal science and technology policy, conducting research and analysis in many subjects for the National Academies and other organizations while slogging through grad school. My education is in Politics (B.A.), Science, Technology, and Public Policy (M.A.), and Science and Technology Studies (need to write that Ph.D. dissertation). I currently work and blog for the Association for Computing Machinery as its Senior Public Policy Analyst. (Disclaimer – opinions expressed here are strictly my own.)
I do agree with David’s call for clarity but I’m inclined to consider the ‘muzzle’ as a type of de facto censorship. While the research is published, as David notes, it is usually written in language that renders it inaccessible to virtually anyone who’s not an expert in that field. Reporters and other science communicators such as bloggers often act as translators of highly specialized and, at times, obscure research for a variety of audiences.
Direct access to the scientist or expert researcher allows the reporter/communicator to clarify and better understand the materials as they translate it for other audiences, particularly non expert audiences. Without direct access, the act of translation becomes highly difficult if not impossible. As a direct consequence, you have de facto censorship from every audience other than expert audiences.
Here’s the definition of censorship I found at Wikipedia,
Censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.
Given that definition and getting back to Campbell and her response to my electrochromic window questions, then it could be described as censorship if she’s withholding information (again, she did not refuse access to scientists [she contacted Alberto Cayuela for the first response], which differentiates this from the Environment Canada example). It is possible, although not likely, that the CIRS team does not have the information I requested in my follow up questions.
While I don’t like being on the receiving end, I do believe there are some situations where censorship is indicated. I’m not convinced that’s the case with the electrochromic windows at the CIRS but I am willing to entertain the possibility.
ETA March 9, 2012: Here’s a posting by Leigh Bedon (March 8, 2012) on Techdirt about the issue of the government limiting media access to scientists. The title, Canadians To Prime Minister: Don’t Censor Our Scientists, hints at Bedon’s perspective.
*’haz’ corrected to ‘haz’ on August 28, 2015.