Federal government scientists’ communications with the public are tightly controlled and discouraged. Scientists in some departments must receive approval before submitting studies to journals for publication.
Obscuring pertinent science and silencing experts—either by impeding publication of research or inhibiting scientists from explaining their work to the general public—diminishes informed public debate, sound public policy, and the free-flow of information necessary for scientific progress. The Canadian government must unmuzzle its scientists.
The media policies brought in under the Harper Government are clear: if a government scientist receives a request from a journalist, they cannot respond without permission from their superiors—often permission must be sought from as high up as the minister’s office or sometimes even the Privy Council Office, the Prime Minister’s department.
Topics requiring the highest level of clearance include “controversial” and “high profile” subjects, or anything that touches on the environment, climate change, the oil and gas industry, water quality and supply, endangered species such as the polar bear or the caribou, and more.
One critic has stated, “The Prime Minister is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won’t be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship.”
An internal document from Environment Canada analyzing the success of its media relations policy in 2010 noted a “major reduction” in media requests, “particularly from high profile media, who often have same-day deadlines, as well as a reduction by 80 per cent in media coverage of climate change.
According to the Canadian Science Writers Association, delays in granting interviews are “unacceptable” and requests are “routinely denied.”
Three muzzled government scientists who have received significant media attention are David Tarasick, an ozone layer specialist with Environment Canada; Kristi Miller, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada salmon expert; and Scott Dallimore, a geologist at Natural Resources Canada. All three published articles based on their research in highly respected top-tier international journals. But reporters seeking clarification on their research were denied interview requests with the scientists. Even Dallimore was blocked, despite his work on a 13,000 year old flood being, as he described to superiors, “a blue sky paper” with no links to “minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.” Though all three were eventually allowed to speak publicly, Miller was prohibited from speaking for several months and Tarasick for two weeks, during these delays reporters’ deadlines were missed and stories were filled without the scientists’ comments or input.
Tarasick, Miller, and Dallimore are not alone, others report fearing repercussions of speaking out, of having answers scripted, and of being “shadowed” during a conference. Instances of scientists being muzzled have been reported at Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Natural Resources Canada, the National Research Council, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
More recently, it appears at least one government department has revamped its publication procedures enabling it to block publication of its scientists’ research in the future. The procedures even extend, apparently, to studies done in collaboration with university researchers from other countries. This development has been described as having a “chilling effect” on research collaborations and threatens to keep discoveries funded by the public purse from being shared with anyone.
Canadian taxpayers fund government research and have a right to hear from their scientists. Politics should step aside and allow government researchers to communicate their findings to the public which paid for the research in the first place.
“We have somehow deemed it OK or permissible for an Iron Curtain to be drawn across the communication of science in this country.”
“There is no question that there is an orchestrated campaign at the federal level to make sure that their scientists can’t communicate to the public about what they do.”
“Government control of information must end and the undermining of Canada’s public scientists must stop. […] This government, by suppressing access to this information, is depriving the Canadian and international scientific communities of significant discoveries. Canadians have a right to the results of research supported by Canadian tax dollars. The findings and benefits of scientific and medical research should be available to all Canadians to enable engaged public policy awareness, debate and development. Canadian scientists must be allowed to publish their research in world renowned journals so that society can advance through their findings and the peer review process.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference 2012 included a panel on the muzzling of government science: http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/aaas