World of Wonders

When we see things that aren’t, we miss the wonderful things that are.

Canadian government muzzling federal scientists

The Ad Astra Science Fiction convention in Toronto might seem an odd setting for the panel discussion, “The Muzzling of Canadian Federal Scientists: Is 1984 Here?”. But, as moderator Pippa Wysong pointed out in her opening remarks, the muzzling of scientists would make a good plot line for a science fiction thriller.

Government control of federally-funded scientists is a growing concern among Canadian science journalists. In years past, the media typically would have unrestricted and immediate access to researchers. The panel, which included science journalists Wysong, Saul Chernos and Janet Pelley, and physicist David Stephenson, offered ample proof that the situation has changed in a disturbing way.

For example, Pelley described an incident at a water quality conference in 2009. Following a presentation on Bisphenol A, she asked the researchers for an interview. The scientists “laughed nervously”, told Pelley they couldn’t answer her questions, and pointed toward a “press-minder” standing nearby. Pelley asked the media officer for permission to interview the scientists but her request was denied. Instead, she was instructed to submit her request to the media office. Needless to say, Pelley didn’t get her interview that day.

Pelley went on to explain that as a result of a 2006 federal directive, journalists are now generally required to submit their questions to a media office; the media officer forwards the questions to a scientist; the scientist’s answers are vetted by the media office; only then are they returned to the journalist. Some requests may even require vetting by cabinet ministers or the Prime Minister’s Office. Not surprisingly, the process can take months.

While some in attendance seemed eager to blame Stephen Harper for this strict control, Stephenson pointed out that the situation pre-dates any particular government. What we are seeing, he explained, is the increased politicization of science and the growth of business management practices in government that dates back decades. As an example, he referenced the battle between politicians and scientists over the health of the Atlantic cod fisheries in the 1960s.

The panel ominously pointed out that controlling access is just one way of muzzling scientists—and the ultimate muzzling takes place when a government stops funding, or removes a researcher from his or her position altogether. Chernos recalled the 2006 demotion of Alberta’s top grizzly expert, Gordon Stenhouse, for speaking out against the province’s strategy to manage the bear population.

The panel agreed on the many dangers threats of this policy. It increases the risk journalists will simply get the science wrong. It can mean the science goes unreported because it takes too long to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops. Ultimately, it to a public ill-informed about federally-funded science, and raises the question of whether governments are basing policy on sound research, or partisan politics and ideology.

What can science journalists do to fight this trend? “Do what you do best,” implored Chernos. “What I can do as a journalist, and what other journalists can do, is write about the issue. Write about access to information, government transparency, and the politicians doing the muzzling.”

The dystopia described in 1984 may not have arrived yet. But the panel clearly demonstrated the immediacy and relevance of Orwell’s foreboding words: “If all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

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Filed under: media, politics

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