The Conservative Government of Stephen Harper, which governs as if it had a majority because of weak opposition, is notorious for controlling information disseminated to the public. This extends to every public agency including the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), much to its detriment.
The Canadian Space Agency which recently underwent a reorganization would like to be a more vocal proponent of its activities and vision. Former astronaut and current President of the CSA Steve Maclean appears to be a strong leader who would like to lead the agency to a more prominent role domestically and internationally. Unfortunately at every step there is a government road block.
Recently the CSA wanted to issue a statement with respect to the new direction NASA was being taken by President Obama after NASA’s budget was released. As Tom Spears of the Ottawa Citizen blogged after he made a request for access to information the approved message by the government was quite muted even though the initial request was hardly exciting.
Here’s the original statement request from media relations for Steve MacLean:
“Today US President Barak Obama presented his country’s budget request for NASA in fiscal year 2011. The President has challenged NASA to become an engine of innovation and the catalyst for an ambitious new space program.
I am encouraged by the collaborative vision the President has laid out for NASA and am confident that it will serve all space agency partners from around the world and the Canadian space industry in particular, as new market opportunities open to develop new technologies. A robust Canadian space industry is critical to our nation’s knowledge economy.
I am pleased that NASA will extend the life of the International Space Station, likely to 2020 or beyond. This will develop the fall potential of this orbiting laboratory, providing opportunities for Canadian scientists.
Finally at a time when the Canadian Space Agency is strengthening its own focus on Earth Observation, NASA is increasing its budget in Earth and climate science.
The Canadian Space Agency has been a strong partner with NASA and will continue its productive collaboration for decades to come.”
And here’s the approved government message:
“The extension of the life of the International Space Station will develop its full potential, providing its partners with full opportunities. The Canadian Space Agency has been a strong partner with NASA and will continue its productive collaboration.”
Unfortunately this is an ongoing pattern with the government. In 2008 when Steve MacLean was introduced as the new President of the CSA he was immediately mandated to come up with a new Long Term Space Plan as the previous one dated back to 2003 and was outdated. Unfortunately the plan the CSA came up with after consulting across agencies, academia and industry was by all accounts rejected by the government and even after revision has never seen the light of day.
What a stark contrast this is compared to how our neighbours to the south do business. NASA is the most open space agency in the world with a mandate to disseminate their message and release to the public domain mission and project data. In 2006 after a scandal whereby a scientist felt his data was being muzzled NASA reitterated and reinforced its public policies. Here are the updated principles:
(a) NASA, a scientific and technical agency, is committed to a culture of openness with the media and public that values the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry. Scientific and technical information from or about Agency programs and projects will be accurate and unfiltered.
(b) Consistent with NASA statutory responsibility, NASA will “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.” Release of public information concerning NASA activities and the results of NASA activities will be made promptly, factually, and completely.
(c) To ensure timely release of information, NASA will endeavor to ensure cooperation and coordination among the Agency’s scientific, engineering, and public affairs communities.
(d) In keeping with the desire for a culture of openness, NASA employees may, consistent with this policy, speak to the press and the public about their work.
(e) This policy does not authorize or require disclosure of information that is exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C. 552) or otherwise restricted by statute, regulation, Executive Order, or other Executive Branch policy or NASA policy (e.g., OMB Circulars, NASA Policy Directives). Examples of information not releasable under this policy include, without limitation, information that is, or is marked as, classified information, procurement sensitive information, information subject to the Privacy Act, other sensitive but unclassified information, and information subject to privilege, such as pre- decisional information or attorney-client communications.
You won’t find that openness at any Canadian government agency.
NASA has also been a leader in adopting social media much to its benefit. Not only has it’s strategy been used to effectively deliver its message but it is also engaging the public in ways the Canadian Space Agency is not allowed to. This is accomplished through its NASA Connect and Collaborate initiative. NASA has hundreds of official Twitter accounts for it’s missions, astronauts and even its employees. NASA also utilizes Facebook, UStream, MySpace, YouTube, Flickr and even encourages blogs.
It is time that the tight reins and muzzling of the Canadian Space Agency be removed so that the agency can effectively fullfil their mandate as outlined by the Canadian Space Agency Act of 1990. Section 4 states “The objects of the Agency are to promote the peaceful use and development of space, to advance the knowledge of space through science and to ensure that space science and technology provide social and economic benefits for Canadians.”
The Canadian Space Agency exists to benefit Canadians. it would be beneficial to Canadians if it was allowed to be an open and transparent agency. The current government is doing the Canadian public a great disservice with its current policies.