07/29/2011 09:10 EDT | Updated 09/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Swimming Upstream Against Government Secrecy

Officials prevented Kristi Miller from speaking to journalists about her possible explanation for salmon stock depletion. Unfortunately, this appears to be part of an emerging pattern in which the federal government is seeking to subvert or discredit the role of science in policy-making.


Last week the government of British Columbia announced its bid to become the country's leader in open government. Ironically, this week the feds have used the same province to reassert their preference for old-style command-and-control.

Postmedia News reports that "Top bureaucrats in Ottawa have muzzled a leading fisheries scientist whose discovery could help explain why salmon stocks have been crashing off Canada's West Coast...The documents show the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister's Office, stopped Kristi Miller from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years."

What is Ottawa thinking?

According to officials at the PCO and the Fisheries Department, Miller was prevented from speaking to journalists about her findings because the government did not want to prejudice the outcome of the Cohen Commission, a judicial inquiry created by the prime minister to look into declines in the Fraser River sockeye salmon. So, in this view, Miller was gagged to protect the integrity of the policy process.

Now, while a case can be made for secrecy around the policy process, let's be clear on what this usually involves. The public service provides policy advice to the government, sometimes on highly sensitive issues, ranging from national security to investment decisions. Untimely access to such information can have bad consequences, such as endangering lives or giving someone a chance to profit unfairly from a decision, so these options are often kept confidential.

But notice that the focus here is on policy options, not scientific information. The PCO argument blurs this distinction. It suggests that, because scientific research informs policy-making, it too is part of the information that government may need to withhold.

Aside from commercial research or national security concerns (think of Los Alamos in the 1940s), this is nonsense. Access to the science around policy decisions does not compromise the outcome. Indeed, we tend to think the reverse, namely, that NOT having access to such information would compromise the outcome. Scientific information is often as critical to informed public discussion as a free press or the right to assemble and share ideas.

So what are we to make of the de facto "gag order" on Miller?

I wish I could conclude that it was the result of a clumsy and over-zealous effort by some junior communications official. Unfortunately, it appears to be part of an emerging pattern in which the federal government is seeking to subvert or discredit the role of science in policy-making. Others include killing the long-form census, pushing a crime-and-punishment agenda when crime rates are at their lowest levels in 40 years, and a dismissive attitude to climate change.

Why would a government want to discredit science?

I can find only one reason: to justify policy choices of its own that are at odds with the science of the day. Thus, if climate change is just one opinion, there is no real reason to act on it. If we are convinced that crime is rampant, why not crack down on it? If we have only patchy information on demographic or other social trends, anecdote will do.

This is deeply troubling. Using government authority to keep the public ignorant and compliant is not only unbefitting a democracy like our own, it is a throw-back to the kind of feudal politics that democracy was supposed to replace.

To return to the Miller case, policy options and scientific information belong in different categories. Blurring this distinction does nothing to protect the integrity of the policy process. On the contrary, it subverts it by robbing the public of the information it needs for reliable, informed exchanges and decision-making.

I can only hope that the B.C. government will quickly match its high words on open government with high deeds. If so, perhaps this will shine new light on how governments today should make policy, which, in turn, will cast a long shadow over how some others do.