Let Science Speak: Harper Government Continues To Muzzle Federally Funded Scientists

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SCIENCE PROTEST HARPER GOVERNMENT
Government scientists have witnessed a long and growing list of cuts to evidence-gathering programs by the Harper administration. (CP) | CP

Editor's note: The following piece was published in the CJFE’s 2013 Review of Free Expression in Canada.

AS AN OTTAWA-BASED journalist, I see a lot of protests on Parliament Hill. But none like the one in July 2012.

Oh, it had the usual trappings of a protest—placards and passionate speeches, even some theatrics with the entrance of a coffin draped in black, accompanied by a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper.

But what was extraordinary about that demonstration was that the estimated 2,000 protesters were scientists. That’s right, scientists—from government and academia—dressed in white lab coats and assembled in mock mourning for the “death of evidence” under the Harper government.

It takes a lot to make scientists—a group used to being unappreciated—angry in public. Two things have fuelled their indignation: severe and targeted cutbacks on government research programs and new rules limiting the ability of government scientists to talk to journalists.

On the first front, government scientists have witnessed a long and growing list of cuts to evidence-gathering programs by the Harper administration:

  • Omnibus budget bills impose cuts and layoffs that affect the monitoring of waterways, fisheries and natural resource projects.
  • The government instructs Statistics Canada to terminate its mandatory long-form census.
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) stops funding the Experimental Lakes Area, the only facility of its kind in the world, credited with making groundbreaking discoveries about phosphates and acid rain.
  • After producing more than 100 million worth of groundbreaking climate change research, the Harper government ends support for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. Casualties include the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) and the Polar Environment Climate Stability Network (PECSN), both critical to studying climate change in the Arctic.
  • Ottawa cuts all funding for the First Nations Statistical Institute (FNSI), which gathers information on Aboriginal peoples, who are usually less represented in government data.
  • Cutbacks to Canada’s ozone monitoring network limit the world’s ability to monitor air quality and ozone depletion.
  • The government shuts down sources of scientific policy advice such as the National Science Advisor (the first and last person in the position was Dr. Arthur Carty, known for his strong stance on “open access” to scientific information) and the National Round Table on Environment and Economy (accused by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird of pushing for a carbon tax).

There’s an obvious pattern here: the Harper government appears intent on suppressing certain kinds of science: science that could undermine its policies about climate change, the oil sands, ozone depletion, mining and pipeline projects, and other sensitive issues. We are witnessing the erosion of the principle that evidence should be the foundation of political discourse, sound policy and government regulation. Or, as the protesting scientists have put it, Ottawa is becoming “an evidence-free zone” with a governing party dedicated to “decision-based evidence making.”

The protestors’ second grievance was the degree to which they have been muzzled by a government obsessed with message control. Beginning in 2007, the Harper administration brought in new communications guidelines. Scientists were required to submit media interview requests to the Privy Council in Ottawa and then wait, sometimes for weeks, before being told they would not be given approval to speak.

As stories about the restrictions grew, Environment Minister Peter Kent was adamant. “We are not muzzling scientists,” he insisted. The problem resided with “a small number of journalists ... who believe that the universe rotates around them and their deadlines.”

However, documents released in late 2012 under Access to Information revealed the heavy hand of Kent’s office and that of the Privy Council. Both directly intervened to prevent Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick from talking to the media about his discovery of an unprecedented ozone hole over the Canadian Arctic. It had nothing to do with the impatience of self-centred reporters. Tarasick was eventually allowed to speak, but only several weeks after the news had broken, and then with a government “minder” listening in. The damage had been done—for journalists, news delayed is news denied.

This year, Ottawa has added a few new measures for muzzling government scientists—measures that directly handcuff scientific research. In January 2013, the DFO sent an email for the Central and Arctic Science Sector instructing scientists that they must await departmental approval to submit research to scientific journals. Even if a manuscript has been accepted by a journal, the DFO has eleventh-hour powers to pull the paper if it doesn’t want the data to go public.

The DFO has also proposed confidentiality provisions that, for the first time, would apply to non-government and non-Canadian research collaborators. Some American scientists have already said they won’t sign such confidentiality agreements, especially when their own government is actively promoting greater openness with government-funded research.

The Harper administration isn’t the first government to try to massage the message. But in my experience, it’s never been this bad. Some journalists have given up even trying to get a comment from a federal scientist in Canada—it’s easier to call someone in the U.S. or the U.K.

And it need not be like this. Climate scientist Gordon McBean, who was an assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada in the ’90s, says that instead of silencing scientists, he sent them away for media training—so that they would talk more to the media. That’s what CJFE would like to see. More than a year ago we wrote a public letter to Prime Minister Harper saying: “We want freedom of speech for federal scientists because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.” ⌘

Bob Carty is a CJFE Board Member. An earlier version of this article appeared in Canadian Chemical News.

TIMELINE

2012

APRIL In a scene reminiscent of the Cold War, government “minders” shadow scientists at an international polar conference to ensure they do not say something inappropriate to the media. The so-called “media relations contacts” monitored and recorded all interactions between Canadian scientists and the press. No government scientists were willing to discuss the novel chaperone service; off record, one called it an embarrassment to Canada.

JULY More than 2,000 scientists stage the “Death of Evidence” demonstration on Parliament Hill, garnering headlines across Canada and around the world. Jeff Hutchings, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University, addressed the protestors: “When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. When you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge ... An iron curtain is being drawn by government between science and society. Closed curtains, especially those made of iron, make for very dark rooms.” Protest organizers continue to monitor censorship and galvanize public opinion at scienceuncensored.ca.

NOVEMBER A document released under Access to Information to Postmedia’s Mike De Souza reveals that Environment Canada scientists had confirmed results published earlier by water expert David Schindler to the effect that contaminants were accumulating in snow near oil sands operations. The document reveals that government researchers were discouraged from speaking to reporters about their findings, and a scripted list of answers was developed to contradict the findings.

DECEMBER Contrary to government claims that there was no muzzling of scientists, documents released under Access to Information show that ozone scientist David Tarasick was prevented from talking to the media by order of Environment Minister Peter Kent and the Privy Council Office.

2013

JANUARY The Royal Society of Canada joins the debate, with its president, Yolande Grisé, telling Ottawa: “The federal government should immediately unshackle government scientists and let them do their jobs. The integrity of evidence-based public policy development is at stake. The public should be allowed to learn directly from our scientists when they make discoveries in areas of public concern.”

The Montreal Gazette, in an editorial, expresses dismay “that the present Conservative government in Ottawa is so insecure that it is afraid to let scientists in its employ speak freely about their findings.”

FEBRUARY Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre of the University of Victoria ask Canada’s information commissioner, as part of her mandate to investigate complaints about access to information, to look into the government’s “systematic efforts” to obstruct researchers. An accompanying 128-page study, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy?, charges that: Natural Resources Canada has “particularly strict rules restricting the ability of scientists to talk to the media about ‘climate change’ and ‘oil sands’”; Environment Canada “specifically forbids scientists from speaking to the public on identified issues such as climate change or protection of polar bear and caribou until the Privy Council Office gives approval”; and Fisheries and Oceans Canada staff “comprehensively control interviews.”

In the U.S., the Obama administration instructs government scientists to release federally funded scientific papers more quickly, and for free, to the public.

MARCH Two years after she was forbidden to talk to the media about her peer-reviewed and already published research into diseases that are killing West Coast salmon, DFO researcher Kristi Miller is allowed to talk to the press for the first time—about her future salmon research.

MARCH Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault responds favourably to the request from Democracy Watch and the Environmental Law Centre, announcing the launch of an investigation into seven federal government departments over the muzzling of scientists.

MARCH Federal funding stops for the Experimental Lakes Area. The $2-million annual cost of the unique, world-renowned research facility is equivalent to seven per cent of the bill for the Conservative government’s spending to commemorate a 200-year-old war. 


Check out CJFE’s 2013 Review of Free Expression in Canada, or donate to help CJFE defend and protect the right to free expression in Canada and around the world. Follow CJFE on Twitter and Facebook.

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