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Science Writers Call For An End To Muzzling of Scientists By Canadian Government

2011/04/27

The following is an open letter to the leaders of all the federal parties from the Canadian Science Writer’s Association expressing concern about the Harper Government’s policy of hampering information flow from taxpayer-funded scientists to the public and the media. In the past, the media would have unrestricted access to researchers working in government agencies. This is VERY disturbing to me, and most Canadians who are aware of it. It begs the question – is this Canada or North Korea?

Dear Misters Harper, Ignatieff, Layton, and Duceppe, and Ms May:

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) represents science journalists, communicators, publicists and authors—500 and growing. For almost a year now, the CSWA has pushed for changes in the government’s current communication policy to enable timely access to government scientists who have published studies and research in journals. We have documented numerous examples of instances where Canadian journalists have been denied access to government scientists doing research in areas of public interest. The problem is relatively new in Canada, although not unknown. It became critical with new rules and regulations instituted by the Harper government. The CSWA has attempted to work with high-level, senior public servants, those who act as champions of science, to restore journalists’ access to science experts in the federal government. We are frustrated by our lack of progress.

Every year, several billion dollars of tax-payers’ money is invested in made-in-Canada research—from genetically altered life forms, to promising forms of clean energy. We assert that the taxpaying Canadian public has a right to know about the science they pay for and what it can tell us about our health, safety, and the world in which we live. The findings and benefits of scientific and medical research should be available to all Canadians to enable engaged public policy awareness, debate and development.

All political parties repeatedly make promises to promote government openness and accountability. It is in this spirit that we ask you, our party leaders, to tell us and the public how you would guarantee freer channels of communication.

We want to know because the current Harper government’s restricted access to information impedes the public’s right to know about the research and studies it funds. We know that many reporters no longer try to get interviews from government experts because requests for interviews are so often stymied, there is an excessively long turn-around time on getting questions answered, and the now typical boilerplate responses are unsatisfactory. This means federal scientists who do the work miss out on the opportunity of getting some public feedback and the public doesn’t learn of the research being done in Canada.

Media requests that used to be handled by government researchers and communication staff across Canada now require an elaborate process of screening and approval in Ottawa that has been described publicly by one scientist as “Orwellian.”

By the time the “media lines” are approved—at considerable expense to taxpayers whose dollars are used to pay for these extra layers of message approval—the journalist’s deadline has usually long passed and the “lines” are never used.

Is communication staff now more compelled to block access to scientists and information than facilitate communication? As a 2010 document by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) put it, in response to an access to information request, the bureaucracy is now working to create a “zero surprise environment” for the Harper government.

The work of federal scientists is important, and it is often described as science done in the public good. These men and women monitor ozone depletion and air pollution. They work to ensure that drugs and medical supplies are safe. They assess which forms of Canadian energy are most promising, and which are most polluting.

We urge you to free the scientists to speak—be it about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change. Take off the muzzles and eliminate the script writers and allow scientists—they do have PhDs after all— to speak for themselves.

Let the federal scientists inform and enliven understanding. They are public servants, doing science for the Canadian public.

Sincerely, on behalf of the CSWA Board of Directors,

Kathryn O’Hara, President
Canadian Science Writers’ Association
sciencewriterscanada@gmail.com
 

Among recent examples of restricted access:

  • In January, 2011 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) muzzled B.C.-based scientist Kristina Miller. Her research, suggesting viral infections may be compromising the health of salmon, was published in the journal Science on January 14. According to a media advisory sent by Science’s media office to hundreds of journalists around the world, Miller was available for interviews that could be arranged by DFO media officer Diane Lake. Journalists from such outlets as Time magazine and the Globe and Mail requested interviews with Miller. But in the end, DFO granted no interviews with Miller. When pressed for an explanation, DFO came up with the rather flimsy excuse that there might be a possible conflict of interest because Miller was to testify at the Cohen Commission into the collapse of salmon stocks in the Fraser River. Meanwhile, Miller’s co-author on the Science report, Scott Hinch at the University of British Columbia, had no problem being interviewed by journalists even though he too was to testify at the Cohen Commission.

A subsequent article in the Globe and Mail by journalist Mark Hume (March 27/2011) reported on the silencing of Miller, inspiring retired DFO scientist Alan Sinclair to write to Hume: “Your recent article reporting that DFO put a gag order on Dr. Kristi Miller’s research on disease in sockeye salmon is very disturbing. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is all too common in DFO and other Federal Ministries with large science components. I encourage you to follow up on this and make Canadians more aware of what’s going on.” But as Hume reported, “following up while Dr. Miller is kept away from the press won’t be easy. She isn’t due to testify before the Cohen Commission for several months. Until then, Canadians can only wonder what she discovered—and why she was silenced.”

  • February 17, 2011, the British journal Nature published a cover story on the human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes by Seung-Ki Min, Xuebin Zhang, Francis W. Zwiers & Gabriele C. Hegerl. Though the lead author was Environment Canada (EC) researcher Min, it was Zwiers, formerly of Environment Canada and now at the University of Victoria, who participated in a telebriefing for journalists organized by Nature and did the bulk of the media interviews on this subject.
  • On April 5, 2011, the American Geophysical Union sent out an email alerting science journalists to newsworthy papers published in Geophysical Research Letters. Topping the list was a study by an Environment Canada team that concludes “dangerous” 2 degrees Celsius warming in the global temperature may be unavoidable by 2100. The study warned that “it is unlikely that warming can be limited to the 2 C target agreed to in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord” since immediate reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions are required. Several of the co-authors were in their offices and available to give interviews, but they told reporters that requests for interviews had to go through Environment Canada’s media office in Ottawa. Interviews were not granted. The story—minus any expert comment from EC—appeared in The Vancouver Sun.

Four of our members—who are among Canada’s most highly regarded science journalists—shared their personal experiences with our board and these are detailed below.

Margaret Munro, Postmedia science reporter, encountered difficulties when reporting on the U.N.’s supersensitive radiation monitors used to track emissions from the crippled Japanese nuclear plant. Four of the detectors are run by Health Canada (HC). Despite repeated requests, HC would not facilitate an interview with one of their radiation experts responsible for the Canadian detectors. “Meantime an Austrian team released data from the global network, including the stations in Canada,” she reports. The resulting stories can be found here and here.

Tom Spears, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen and science blogger, recounts his experiences in an April 8 email: Last June, Natural Resources Canada refused to take any calls from reporters for close to five hours following the earthquake in Ottawa. It told its communications people they could confirm there had been an earthquake, but they were to say nothing else until the top brass got its message together.

“Sadly, the government now avoids telephone contact. You call in, you get a call centre. They ask ‘What’s the deadline?’ They ask for an email address, and always, always reply by email, so you can’t say things like “Why?” or “What does that mean?”

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard recounts similar experiences, for instance: “For a post-mortem story on H1N1, we asked how many people were vaccinated by province and territory. We were told that information couldn’t be released, that we had to get it from each individual province and territory. It was a federal program—the vaccine was paid for by Ottawa and distributed by Ottawa. And it’s a secret who actually received it?”

Veteran science writer Stephen Strauss echoes the frustration: “What we end up with is hoping that some scientist in the U.S. or Europe also worked on the project so we can ask them questions about what Canadian tax money spent on the research has accomplished. The result is sort of like Canadians trying to follow the Canadian election by only reading The New York Times or Le Monde.”

More links:

An Open Letter To the Leaders of Canada’s Political Parties

Who’s Muzzling Canadian Scientists?

Public Science.ca

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Keith Elliott permalink
    2011/04/27 11:31 am

    Christine, it doesn’t seem to matter what it is, the Harper government stymies information at every turn.

    By coincidence, two of my immediate neighbours (husband and wife, who shall remain nameless for fear of reprisals from the gov’t) both toil for the DFO. He is pretty high up.

    A few years ago, there was an outright ban placed on cod fishing in local waters…some small areas were left open, many areas were closed “temporarily”.

    I spoke with him about this, and it seems that cod are not migratory, and it takes them at least 15 years to reach maturity and thus reproduce stocks. I asked how long the temporary ban might hold, and the answer – unofficially, of course – was “possibly indefinitely”.

    The government did produce a small book on the closed areas, yet every local fisherman I spoke with was completely unaware of the ban. I really don’t know why.

  2. Christine permalink*
    2011/04/27 8:50 pm

    Where is the outcry from Canadians in general and the media in particular? This is how totalitarianism gets its start – when freedom is eroded, one step by one backward step. Wake up, sheeples!

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