Federal government policies are undermining and muzzling Canadian researchers.

The federal government has chosen to bind research closely to industry needs or political ends. It has muzzled scientists and politicized the research carried out by its own departments. These policies and actions are undermining all researchers in Canada.

“Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak.”

“prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature.”

“Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.”

Nature 483, 6  (01 March 2012)

“Command and Control”

In January 2011, Kristi Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist, published an article titled “Suffering Salmon” in Nature. Miller’s research examined the rapid decline of sockeye salmon populations in the Fraser River in recent years. For months Miller was blocked from addressing the media. The Privy Council Office, which directly supports the Prime Minister’s Office, would not grant Miller permission to speak publicly about her research while the Cohen Commission, a judicial inquiry ordered by Prime Minister Harper to look into the decline of Fraser River salmon populations, was ongoing.

The incident prompted a news release by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which noted “This reported incident is yet another alarming example of the Harper government’s continued disregard for evidence-based research and it is another case of the government’s ‘command and control’ approach.”

“Media and public access to federal scientists has become politicized, resulting in an inability to effectively communicate important scientific news to Canadians through mainstream media.”

“Privy Council Muzzles Canadian Scientist” July 28, 2011

“The gag orders on scientists, librarians and archivists, and others who work for the federal government are appalling and socially harmful. The idea that in a democratic society we will pay people to do research but then not let them share the results of that research with the public who paid for it—because, it seems, avoiding embarrassing the government is more important—is likely to strike anyone who thinks about it as ludicrous.”

David DeVidi, University of Waterloo

It’s about choice.

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The government has been enforcing a policy of silencing Environment Canada scientists for years.

In 2008 and again in 2010, CanWest News Service and Global News reported on the muzzling of Environment Canada scientists.

By Environment Canada’s own account, implementation of the policy led to a dramatic reduction in the number of news stories on the subject of climate change by over 80% between 2007 and 2008.

“The Environment Canada analysis noted that four prominent scientists, who regularly spoke for the government on climate change science issues, appeared in only 12 newspaper clippings in the first nine months of 2008, compared with 99 clippings over the same period in 2007.”

Global News

A leaked internal Environment Canada federal document suggests the “communications policy has practically eliminated senior federal scientists from media coverage of climate-change science issues, leaving them frustrated that the government was trying to ‘muzzle’ them,” the Montreal Gazette reported in 2010.

The policy requires senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government before giving interviews, and in many cases to get approval from supervisors of predetermined responses to the questions submitted by journalists before interviews.

Many of these federal scientists “are recognized experts in their field, have received media training, and have successfully carried out media interviews for many years,” the document reports. “Our scientists are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media.”

“It’s definitely a scandal,” Graham Saul, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. “It’s almost as though they’re making a conscious attempt to bury the truth.”

Montreal Gazette

It’s about choice.

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Researchers have also been prevented from speaking to the media about findings on a prehistoric ice-dam, and about publishing a new novel.

Ice Age

In 2011 Natural Resources Canada geologist Scott Dallimore was barred from speaking to reporters about his work on the breaking of a prehistoric ice-dam 13,000 years ago until the dialogue was pre-approved by the minister’s office.

According to internal government documents, “it took a number of government managers, advisers, political staff and senior officials a full week to draft and approve a list of permissible questions and Dallimore’s responses. By that time, the study had been released, his international co-authors had been widely interviewed, and journalists’ deadlines had passed.”

The fiasco earned Natural Resources Canada the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Code of Silence Award, given to the most clandestine government department.

“What could be so secret about a 13,000-year-old ice dam that merits muzzling a top Canadian scientist?” said CAJ President Mary Agnes Welch. “Some ice ages apparently haven’t ended.”

Canadian Association of Journalists

Hotter than Hell

In 2006, then Environment Minister Rona Ambrose stopped Environment Canada scientist Mark Tushingham from attending the launch of his own novel. Hotter than Hell is a work of science fiction that depicts a world devastated by climate change, which prompts a war between Canada and the U.S. over water resources.

CBC reports that Tushingham was scheduled to speak in Ottawa about his book and the science underpinning it, but an order from Ambrose’s office stopped him.

“‘He got a directive from the department, cautioning him not to come to this meeting today,’ said his publisher Elizabeth Margaris of DreamCatcher Publishers in New Brunswick. ‘So I guess we’re being stifled. This is incredible, I’ve never heard of such a thing,’ she told CBC Radio.”

CBC News

Send a message in this federal election that you want a government that will get research right.

It’s about choice.

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Allison MuriMuzzling Research