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'Free Canadian scientists,' journal urges Harper

The prestigious research journal Nature has called on the Canadian government "to set its scientists free" and allow them to explain their work to the media. The call comes after an earlier protest invoked the silencing of B.C. salmon researcher Dr. Kristi Miller.

In an editorial published on March 1, Nature describes the Obama administration's policy of allowing scientists to speak without seeking prior approval. By contrast, it said the Harper government has behaved like the former Bush administration:

Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak.

Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

The Harper government's poor record on openness has been raised by this publication before (see K. O'Hara Nature 467, 501; 2010), and Nature's news reporters, who have an obvious interest in access to scientific information and expert opinion, have experienced directly the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada's publicly funded scientists. Little has changed in the past two years: rather than address the matter, the Canadian government seems inclined to stick with its restrictive course and ride out all objections.

... If the Harper government truly embraces public access to publicly funded scientific expertise, then it should do what the Canadian Science Writers' Association and several other organizations have called for in a letter sent to the prime minister on 16 February: "implement a policy of timely and transparent communication" like those used by NOAA and the NSF.

The letter coincided with a symposium, 'Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Debate', which was held last week at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, Canada. With the country taking centre stage as the meeting's host, the Harper government found its media policies in the international spotlight.

Scientists and other visitors from around the globe discovered, to their surprise, that Canada's generally positive foreign reputation as a progressive, scientific nation masks some startlingly poor behaviour. The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

The symposium, held in Vancouver in February, mentioned the silencing of Dr. Kristi Miller in the months before her testimony at the Cohen Commission.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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