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How 'Muzzled' Are Canada's Federal Scientists?

Kristi Miller would likely be able to help Canadians who don't have degrees in biology understand her groundbreaking — and complex — research into the Pacific salmon stock, which was published more than a year ago.

But so far, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist, who toils in a lab on Vancouver Island, has only spoken publicly at a formal inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River.

Media requests to speak to her have not resulted in interviews — and the decision to keep her off-limits to reporters has reached as high as officials in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa.

The federal government says it is not muzzling its scientists, but Miller's name often emerges when the issue arises, as it has more frequently of late both inside and outside Canada's scientific community.

For some, there's far more at stake here than a simple opportunity for a biologist or a climatologist to talk about viruses or the ozone layer.

"If scientists working within government are not free to discuss their science and the potential implications of it, then what does that say about us as a society?" asks Jeffrey Hutchings, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation and Biodiversity at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

For Hutchings, who had his own fight with federal government secrecy over the closure of the Atlantic cod fishery in the 1990s, there's a rather grim answer to his question.

It is, as he puts it, that "we have somehow deemed it OK or permissible for an Iron Curtain to be drawn across the communication of science in this country."

A long history

Miller's experience is only the latest in a series of incidents that have alarmed the scientific community (see sidebar).

Scientists whose research touched on everything from global temperature increases to a massive flood in northern Canada 13,000 years ago and an ozone hole over the Arctic have seen their media availability carefully dictated or ruled out completely.

Politicians have taken note, too. Green Party Leader Elizabeth May calls the situation the "Mystery of the Muzzled Scientists," and sees it dating to the time when John Baird was environment minister.

In a posting on her website, May says the "muzzling" now includes communication with members of Parliament.

"I asked a colleague in DFO a fairly innocuous question by email a few months ago," May wrote. "The reply explained that, now that I was an MP, he would need permission to respond. He promised to let me know when he had the ‘all clear.’ I imagine I will never hear from him again."

As for Kristi Miller, she was the lead scientist whose research, published in the January 2011 edition of the journal Science, suggested that an unexplained virus was resulting in a higher death rate for some salmon.

She has spoken about her research at the federal inquiry under B.C. Justice Bruce Cohen, which is due to issue its final report by the end of June. At the inquiry, Miller testified that she believes it would have been useful to speak to the media after her research was published to let them know what scientists knew and didn't know. She said she also found it frustrating to see the direction some news stories went.

For Hutchings and others, that kind of public appearance, at an official inquiry or scientific conference, isn't enough. Canadians should be able to hear scientists explain their work in plain language whenever they are called upon.

Otherwise, the public might not be able to grasp the significance of the research and individuals won't be able to form their own opinions and come up with alternative theories, should they want to.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans declined to make Miller available to the media over the past 15 months and even declined a request for an interview to discuss her case and the federal government's general approach to media requests for interviews with its scientists.

In an email, DFO media relations manager Frank Stanek wrote that Miller's work was discussed at the Cohen commission, and that her research is available to the public through its publication in the journal Science.

"Fisheries and Oceans Canada is conscious of the requirement to ensure that our conduct did not influence, and was not perceived to be attempting to influence, the evidence or course of the inquiry.

"As a result, it was decided that media questions would be responded to in writing."

Communicating 'a priority'

Stanek went on to note that "communicating our science is a priority" for the department, and that DFO scientists respond to about 380 science-based media calls annually.

Environment Minister Peter Kent says that concerns about "muzzling" of scientists are being driven by a small number of impatient Canadian journalists.

"There is an element in all of this controversy, second-hand information and criticism from the scientific community abroad responding to a few, a very small number of Canadian journalists who believe they're the centres of their respective universes and deserve access to our scientists on their timeline and to their deadlines, and it simply doesn't work that way," Kent said last week in an interview with Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy newsweekly.

When federal scientists speak with the media, they do so under media rules that were tightened a few years ago.

Under the new rules, interviews may come days or weeks after a request is made. By that time, of course, the story could be old news.

Gary Goodyear, the federal minister of state for science and technology, rejects any suggestion that the new system is designed to downplay the department's work.

Federal scientists, he said, are "available for interviews from the media. They do conferences on their research. They teach all across the country.

"So I don't see that as being an issue," he told the CBC's Julie Van Dusen in Ottawa earlier this month.

Too little, too late

Still, Tom Pedersen, a director at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at the University of Victoria, questions how useful an interview with a federal scientist can really be when it comes weeks after a request is made.

"Effectively what's happened is the current government has thrown a blanket over the free exchange of knowledge, scientific knowledge, in Canada, and society does not benefit when there are constraints placed on the free exchange of scientific knowledge."

Pedersen looks to the discussion around climate change when he considers the impact of limited or delayed media access to federal scientists who can put their research into plain language.

"The damage that causes is that we are unable to get the Canadian public to understand how serious the issue is, what the latest scientific results are and what the importance that those results then hold for developing good policies here to change the direction in which we're going."

He also points out that this has become an international issue, noting in particular an editorial earlier this month in the journal Nature that called on the federal government to "free its scientists to speak to the press."

"We are now seen on the international stage as a pariah and five years ago, or maybe six, that was not the case," Pedersen says.

"Canada was praised internationally for its scientific efforts and its openness as a society. And now we seem to have turned our back on that."

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