Attendees at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science heard from reporters that the Canadian federal government is controlling interviews with government scientists, by scripting answers for them or denying them access to journalists. The session was reported widely by international media.
Before a packed audience, a panel denounced the situation that started in 2008, shortly after Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was first elected. “Things started to change dramatically after that,” said Margaret Munro, a science journalist with Postmedia News service in Vancouver. The symposium, organized by several groups including associations of Canadian science writers and of scientists, has been recorded and is available online.
Ms. Munro was one of the first to report on the issue in Canada three years ago after she obtained a document from Environment Canada outlining changes in government communication policies. The policies now require media requests to be directed to the Privy Council. “This new direction seemed to spread rapidly afterwards to other ministries and departments,” said Ms. Munro, who cited several examples of scientists who have not been allowed to speak to the press.
The best-known case relates to research about wild Pacific salmon and involves Kristi Miller, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Dr. Miller had been researching the decline of salmon populations in B.C. The results, published in the journal Science, seemed to suggest that fish might have been exposed to a virus associated with cancer and questioned whether the virus might have been imported from the salmon farming industry. Although she was the lead author on the research published in Science, Dr. Miller was not allowed to speak to the media.
More recently, said Ms. Munro, the author of an important research paper reporting an “unprecedented ozone hole in 2011” – David Tarasick of Environment Canada – was told he could not give interviews to the press until several weeks after his paper was published and after journalists applied pressure. At that point, media interest in the research had tapered off, she said.
“We organized this panel because, as journalists, we cannot do our job, and this trend, to filter what scientists have to say, needs to be denounced worldwide,” said Binh An Vu van, a science journalist and coordinator of the panel for the Association des communicateurs scientifiques du Québec and six other concerned groups, including the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. The groups also sent an open letter to Prime Minister Harper asking him to restore freedom of speech among scientists in the public service. “There is a generalized ras-le-bol [feeling of being fed up] that has been somewhat reported in Canada, but barely in Quebec, and not at all known in the rest of the world,” said Ms. Vu Van.
On Saturday, the story was reported by BBC World Service, and by the end of the day, it had become the most-visited story on BBC’s news website. In an opinion piece that followed his coverage, Pallab Ghosh, science correspondent for the BBC, said, “It is more than a little embarrassing for the Canadian government to be accused of ‘muzzling’ its own scientists when it is hosting one of the world’s largest scientific conferences in Vancouver.”
“Several government representatives were invited to participate in the panel entitled ‘Unmuzzling government scientists: How to re-open the discourse’,” said Kathryn O’Hara, moderator of the session and professor of science journalism at Carleton University, “but they all declined.”
“Federal scientists are first and foremost public servants [which] means that they are there to serve the public, not the minister,” said Andrew Weaver, professor of environmental science at the University of Victoria and a member of the panel. He said that there is fear of retribution, which has a ripple effect on academic freedom. “Academic scientists often rely on government science. If you are not able to communicate with federal scientists, you find that the general public doesn’t understand the importance of science, the public loses sense of what is important in science, and the public doesn’t know where its tax money goes, and science becomes in jeopardy.”