Opinion » Editorial

Muzzling scientists not the answer



The muzzling of Canada's scientists has been in the news for many months now, here at home and also around the world.

This week it once again captured headlines after the results of a survey were released, which showed that 90 per cent of federal scientists who answered a questionnaire felt they couldn't speak freely about their work.

The survey was carried out by Environics Research for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), which represents 55,000 professional civil servants. About 15,000 government scientists in 40 departments and agencies were asked to complete the survey — 26 per cent responded. A spokesperson for PIPSC suggested that many did not complete the survey out of fear of reprisals if anonymity was breeched.

"According to the survey, 90 per cent of federal scientists do not feel they can speak freely about their work to the media. This alone will be alarming to Canadians who expect openness and accountability from their government," Gary Corbett, the president of PIPSC, told a news conference, which was reported by the Globe and Mail.

"But it is even more troubling," said Corbett, "that faced with a departmental decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, nearly as many scientists — 86 per cent ­— do not believe they could share their concerns with the media or public without censure or retaliation."

The Globe also reported that 24 per cent of government scientists have been asked to exclude or alter technical information in federal documents.

The frustrations stem from the model of "communication" of Stephen Harper's conservative government, which has accelerated and strengthened government control over all public servants.

Back in early 2012, a science correspondent for the BBC, while covering a conference in Vancouver, pointed to the Orwellian way media have to deal with the federal government to reach any scientists as part of the story research.

"The allegation of 'muzzling' came up at a session of the AAAS meeting to discuss the impact of a media protocol introduced by the Conservative government shortly after it was elected in 2008," states the Feb.17 BBC report.

"The 2012 protocol requires that all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials. A decision as to whether to allow the interview can take several days, which can prevent government scientists commenting on breaking news stories.

"Sources say that requests are often refused and when interviews are granted, government media relations officials can and do ask for written questions to be submitted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview."

Interesting policy.

In September of this year the New York Times took Harper to task for allegedly silencing publicly funded scientists, a strategy the Times said is designed to ensure oil sands production proceeds quietly.

"Over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists," the Times editorial board stated.

"The government is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tarsands — source of the diluted bitumen that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline."

The federal information commissioner's office launched an investigation into complaints on the matter earlier this year. The list of actions prompting the investigation is long. It includes shutting the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, axing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, eliminating funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and prohibiting federal scientists from speaking about research on subjects ranging from ozone, to climate change to salmon. The government denies that it muzzles scientists, saying access is granted on requests.

In terms of specific departments, the survey said 62 per cent of the scientists at Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the government isn't incorporating the best climate-change science into its policies — that's a real concern when it comes to long-term planning.

About the same percentage of DFO scientists said alterations to the Fisheries Act brought in in 2012 hamper their ability to protect fish.

All of this is happening as the government introduces environmental policy changes and reduces funding even though there is little information to suggest regulatory review is inefficient.

This survey report is the first of two that the PIPSC will release this year. The second will look at the effect of government cutbacks.

While the research and science that many of the academics look at might boggle the average mind the impacts of what they find, and the affect the findings could have on our planet must not, and it needs to be shared with everyone.

As science guru and environmentalist David Suzuki puts it: "In a truly open and democratic society, ideas, policies and legislation are exposed to scrutiny, debate and criticism. Information is shared freely.

"Governments support research that makes the country stronger by ensuring its policies are in the best interests of the people. A government that values its citizens more than its industrial backers does not fear information and opposition."