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How Science Can Help the Feds Save Face

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How fares freedom of expression in Canada? As part of Non-Speak Week, PEN Canada blogs on the health of that most fundamental of freedoms.

Whenever I try to explain to ordinary people why the present Conservative government's muzzling of its scientists is a wrongheaded and self-destructive act, I begin by stating the obvious. Not letting scientists readily talk to journalists expresses a fundamentally un-scientific mentality.

Then I quote what French historian Arthur Mangin wrote nearly 150 years ago. "Connaître, découvrir, communiquer -- telle est la destinée d'un savant" or as that reads in English "to get to know, to discover, to communicate - this is the destiny of a scientist." The sentence announces what anyone who knows anything about science already understands. Science is not about uncovering something that you aren't going to tell anyone else about because you are afraid of what they are going to make of your discovery. Science is intrinsically a hive activity in which communication and explication of a discovery isn't just a good thing, it is an intrinsic thing. Maybe almost the intrinsic thing.

Scientists measure the impact of what they have found by the numbers of times others cite their work. They love it when others try to reproduce their findings. They speak about what they have done at any institution, conference or webinar which will have them. And they are increasingly blogging like mad about what is going on in their fields -- a communicating mania that can viewed at sites such as scienceblogs and technorati. I personally have never seen as gossipy a collective as the hallways and meeting rooms and even lavatories of a scientific get-together.

So when the government muzzles its scientists and forbids them from talking journalists it has resulted in behavior that seems almost pathologically non-scientific.

Think of when Ottawa Citizen reporter Tom Spears asked the National Research Council what its joint falling snow study with NASA was about. After 11 staffers and dozens of emails went back and forth considering the request, the NRC really didn't respond. While this was occurring, a request to a NASA scientist for information got all Spears' questions answered in 15 minutes.

Think of when a Fisheries and Oceans researcher co-authored a paper in the journal Science, arguably the first or second leading generalized science magazine in the world, about research which suggested that a virus might be killing wild salmon in British Columbia. Science thought the finding was so important that it told the over 7,400 journalists on its emailing list about the paper. And told the researcher, Kristi Miller, to please "feel free to talk to journalists." However, documents reveal that the Privy Council Office, that high in government, told Miller she was not allowed to talk.

And I personally tried to reach Agriculture Canada scientists to discuss a much cited review paper they had done which looked at various ways to reduce the threat of global warming caused (in part) by the methane gas cows released as they chewed their cuds and burped. I wanted to show people that while identifying the human initiated causes of climate change was relatively easy, mediating those causes was beyond difficult. My request wasn't even replied to with a "can't talk"; it was just ignored.

There have been a number of conspiracy theories explaining why the present government has adopted its policies. These range from it trying to force its scientists to come up with findings which justify its policies a la Soviet Russia's support of pseudo-geneticist Trofim Lysenko's rejection of non-communistic genetics. To the notion that Stephen Harper personally hates science. To the Conservatives' disdain for reporters and journalism arising from their belief that it is mainly populated by egotists who aren't interested in writing more accurately but rather luxuriate in being, as Minister of the Environment Peter Kent recently disdainfully put it, "the centres of their respective universes."

Whatever the Conservatives' rationale, I know the muzzling of science has made it harder for journalists to write accurate, timely, Canadian-referenced research articles. And has incited condemnation and scorn from around the world.

But I don't go through all this to revisit yet again a journalism vs. Conservative government muzzling debate. I will simply say that the reason the Conservatives should want government scientists to speak freely to journalists is because it is in their - the present government's - profound self interest. They want to be able to say to the Canadian people when something with deep scientific rooting mega screws up: Don't just blame us. We were trying to do what our scientists were telling us should be done. And you can see that by - imagine a supersized hyperlink here - looking at what we were letting these scientists say to this, that or the other journalist.

This is not an imagined scenario. As I write this the Conservatives are struggling with how to explain the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's actions as E. coli-O157 contaminated beef from Alberta continues to sicken people across the country. This is intrinsically complicated science. E. coli is a fundamentally difficult contamination to manage as the bacteria harmlessly exists in cows' stomachs but sickens or kills people who ingest the bacteria. The government continues to say that it was doing all it could do, but it is making this claim within the context of its openly admitted policy of muzzling of its scientists.

So some articles point out that you can't have it both ways. You can't both regularly censor scientific communication and then suddenly shift into open communication mode. If your governance mentality is based on muzzling, you muzzle. And one result is that many readers/voters/citizens here and here don't believe what the Conservatives are saying because they too see a government consumed by its need to manage and control the flow of information.

So let me advise the Conservatives, not speaking in the voice of a science journalist, but as an unpaid political advisor. It is in your self-interest to connaître, découvrir, communiquer. It is in your self-interest to always unmuzzle your scientists because if you don't nobody is going to believe what you are saying when you suddenly let them talk openly.

Stephen Strauss was a long-time science columnist with the Globe and Mail and with CBC.ca. He is now president of the Canadian Science Writers' Association.

On October 17, Stephen Strauss will be a panelist at Sci-lenced, a PEN Canada/CSWA discussion of Government scientists and the media in Canada. The event is open to the public, admission is free.