The sound of silenced scientists

Monday, January 7, 2013

by Bob Carty

Originally posted in Canadian Chemical News

As a journalist, I see a lot of protests on Parliament Hill. But none like the one last July.

Oh, it had the usual trappings of a protest — placards and passionate speeches, even some theatrics with the entrance of a coffin draped in black accompanied by a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper.

But what was extraordinary about last July’s demonstration was that the 2,000 protesters were scientists. That’s right, scientists — from government and academia — dressed in white lab coats and assembled in mock mourning for the “death of evidence” under the Harper government.

It takes a lot to make scientists — a group used to being unappreciated — angry in public. Two things have fueled their indignation: severe and targeted cutbacks on government research programs and new rules limiting the ability of journalists to talk to government scientists.

On the first front, omnibus budget bills have imposed layoffs and severe cuts to the monitoring of waterways, fisheries and natural resource projects. In addition, the Harper government has shut down critical evidence-gathering systems like Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form census, the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences, the First Nations Statistical Institute, and Canada’s ozone monitoring network. And they terminated centres of scientific policy advice from the National Science Advisor, and National Round Table on Environment and Economy.

The second grievance of the protesting scientists was the degree to which they have been muzzled by a government obsessed with message control. Beginning in 2007 the Harper administration brought in new communications guidelines. Scientists were required to submit media interview requests to the Privy Council in Ottawa and then wait, sometimes for weeks, before being told they would not be given approval to speak.

Environment Minister Peter Kent retorts that complaints about the “muzzling” of scientists are misplaced and only arise from the impatient demands of self-centred journalists. But documents recently released under Access to Information reveal that Kent’s office and the Privy Council directly intervened to prevent Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick from talking to the media about his discovery of an unprecedented ozone hole in the Canadian Arctic.

This is not the first government to try to massage the message. But in my experience it has never been this bad. If we cannot speak directly to scientists doing the research we are left to regurgitate the filtered, often highly spun, responses of bureaucrats. That does not help Canadians make informed decisions about dozens of critical questions. Some journalists have given up even trying to get a comment from a federal scientist in Canada — it’s easier to call someone in the United States or the U.K.

And it need not be like this. Climate scientist Gordon McBean, a former assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada in the nineties, says that instead of silencing scientists he sent them away for media training — so that they would talk more to the media.

That’s what we would like to see. Last February, my organization, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) joined other groups in writing Prime Minister Harper to express our concerns about government muzzling of publicly funded scientists. “We want freedom of speech for federal scientists,” we told the PM, “because we believe it makes for better journalism, for a more informed public, for a healthier democracy, and it makes it more likely that Canadians will reap the maximum benefit from the research they fund.”

Bob Carty is a documentary producer and board member of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE).