Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

It hasn’t gone away. The muzzling of scientists by the Harper administration continues to represent a scandalous challenge to Canadian democracy. Good news though: the abuses have been solidly documented in a survey of federal scientists, and in a report to the Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, who as a result, has launched a formal investigation.

scaly branchTo recap some well-know cases: Nature published “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011”, an article by Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick that documented a hole two million kilometres wide that allows harmful ultraviolet radiation to escape. When a journalist contacted the federal media relations rep for an interview with the author (as protocol calls for) a spokesperson wrote back, “While the interview cannot be granted, we are able to provide additional information on the paper…you may attribute these responses to Dr. David Tarasick.” These “responses” however did not originate with the author but instead with the assistant deputy minister. The bureaucrats only relented in their walling off of the author two weeks later, after the media had moved on to other stories.

Case number two: Environment Canada scientists attending a Montreal conference, International Polar Year 2012, were shadowed by media relations contacts who sat in and recorded their interviews. If approached by a journalist, the scientists were required to brush them off, referring them instead to a media person. This is the sort of practice one would expect in Russia.

Case number three: University of Alberta scientists Erin Kelly and David Schindler were provided with a package of scripted answers to expected questions from journalists on the subject of their paper on contaminated areas around oil sands developments.

Bark Dec 7, 2013

These are hardly isolated cases as has been made abundantly clear in a survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada and conducted by the Environics Research Group. The scientists surveyed included those with responsibilities for the safety of our food, water, drugs and health products, the air, environment, children’s toys, scientific innovation and the economy.

“Faced with a department decision or action that could harm public health, safety or the environment, 86 percent do not believe they could share their concerns with the public or media without censure or retaliation from their department,” reads the report.

Half the scientists surveyed reported being aware of actual cases in which the environment or the health of Canadians has been compromised as a result of political interference with their scientific work. Twenty-four per cent have been asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. Sixty two per cent think the best climate change science has not been translated into policies.

(U.S. scientists endure nothing like this; they have only to make clear that when they speak, they are not necessarily representing their government’s position.)

Last March, Canada’s information commissioner launched an official investigation into the muzzling issue based on a 26-page report with 100 pages of appendices detailing cases, internal government documents, information requests, interviews with former and current federal public servants, journalists, non-profit organizations and university professors. Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic provided the document, which charges that current practices constitute a breach of the Access to Information Act.

If Commissioner Suzanne Legault agrees, she could “facilitate a solution”, which might involve mediation, or worst/best case, refer the matter to the Federal Court of Canada.

Commissioners report directly to parliament, free of the restraints of party politics, or so goes the theory, but all their power in tied up in influencing people. Their reports typically become the subject of hand-wringing editorials and that’s about it. If they’re especially good at getting heard, they might get blown off like the former parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page. The Harper administration is used to scathing reports; this is the same government that seems so nonplussed about having been found in contempt of parliament.

Sumack Dec 7, 2013

Imposing a clogged artery between scientists and the media; insisting that scientists be shadowed by media flacks; denying them permission to speak about their already published work; supplying senior-bureaucrat talking points for media interviews; insisting co-authors on federal research projects submit to the same soviet-style restrictions as federal scientists; and delaying, delaying, delaying, these media management practices seem curiously off-tempo with the speed of light exchanges on the wide open Internet.

But actually, the feds media protocol fits perfectly with the larger phenomena of seemingly huge piles of data accumulating in the ether while fewer and fewer people seem to have the authority to tell us what it all means. They’ve been laid off.

The Harper government seems particularly keen on constraining the climate change wonks from messing up its plans, but something else is going on. This particular administration is diminishing the authority with which science speaks — all that independent, peer-reviewed, evidence-based, cautious, heavy-on-the-qualifiers thinking of those conscientious people who always did their homework and got good marks in school.  Reducing scientists to squeaky wheels and whiners slots them as a special interest group with an agenda, and one that can be tossed off to appease their base.

Sometimes of course the best-laid political operative’s plans go astray. Muzzling the scientists when added to Canada’s knuckle-dragging performance on the climate change file has made us an easy target in the XL Pipeline debate south of the border. We’re iconic bad guys now with not a whole lot of credibility.

If we can describe federal scientists as canaries in the coal mine, part of the warning system in a political culture determined to stream-out evidence-based analysis, then we must be the frog in the pot, cooking so slowly we won’t know we’re intellectually compromised until it’s over.

The Bill Chill: A survey commissioned by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada http://www.pipsc.ca/portal/page/portal/website/issues/science/bigchill

Muzzling Scientists: A Threat to Democracy http://democracywatch.ca/reports/

Stop Muzzling Scientists: A petition http://democracywatch.ca/campaigns/tell-harper-to-stop-muzzling-scientists/

15 thoughts on “Canaries in the Coal Mine, Frogs in the Pot: Revisiting the Muzzling of Canadian Scientists

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