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It's Time for Action on Canada's Muzzled Scientists

While we wait on info commissioner's probe, a reminder of the story so far.

Thomas J. Duck 15 Sep

Thomas J. Duck is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is on the advisory board of Evidence for Democracy.

What has become of the federal Information Commissioner's investigation into Canada's muzzled federal scientists?

There's evidence that scientists are being silenced, and that the government has been misleading the public and Parliament about it. The damage to the public interest is extensive and ongoing.

Yet in almost two and a half years since the investigation was launched, information commissioner Suzanne Legault hasn't provided any information about its progress. Maybe the creeping investigation is due to the commission's funding crisis, but no one is saying.

When I contacted the Office of the Information Commissioner in April, I got no answers. "The investigation is ongoing," the office said. "We cannot comment further given the strict confidentiality rules governing our investigations." The commission does not "speculate on a completion date for any of our investigations," it said.

That's not good enough. The stalled investigation has allowed the government to continue to muzzle federal scientists. Information that should be shaping our public policy debates is being kept from citizens.

Who are the muzzled?

The commissioner's investigation was launched in March 2013 following a joint complaint from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre and Democracy Watch. It alleged "systematic efforts by the Government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media and through them, the Canadian public to timely access to government scientists."

The complainants submitted an exhaustive 128-page report documenting the silencing of scientists and highlighting three cases.

• Environment Canada ozone scientist David Tarasick was prevented from speaking to the media about the discovery of the very first Arctic ozone hole, as published in the prestigious journal Nature. After intense public pressure, the federal government relented.

• Fisheries and Oceans scientist Kristi Miller was not permitted to talk to the media about her research implicating a virus in the death of sockeye salmon on B.C.'s coast. Miller's findings were published in the leading scientific journal Science.

• Natural Resources scientist Scott Dallimore was prevented from talking to the media about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago and reported in Nature. By the time permission arrived, media deadlines (and interest) had passed.

There are other examples.

Environment Canada scientist Mark Tushingham was stopped from talking about his novel that dealt with climate change. Environmental scientist Philippe Thomas was prevented from discussing toxins in fur-bearing animals in the oilsands. Ice scientist Leah Braithwaite was denied the opportunity to speak about the deteriorating Arctic ice cap, and National Research Council scientists were not allowed to discuss a snow study they conducted with NASA.

Imagine, Canadian government scientists not allowed to discuss ice and snow!

Two other cases are even more absurd: The federal government tried to extend its muzzle to U.S.-based scientists, and algae scientist Max Bothwell was prevented from talking to the media about "rock snot," an unwelcome river algae.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada surveyed government scientists and found 90 per cent reported they are not allowed to speak freely with the media. In one case, the government sent "minders" with scientists to a conference in order to "monitor and record" what they were saying.

"This is the type of thing I used to see when, back in the 1980s, I reported from the Soviet Union," political commentator and journalist Lawrence Martin noted.

'Byzantine' series of approvals

The muzzling of scientists apparently began in earnest in early 2008 when Environment Canada ordered its scientists to redirect media requests to Ottawa. Their goal was to manage the message and eliminate "surprises" for the environment minister. Other departments followed suit.

Here's how the muzzle works. When a reporter emails or calls a government scientist with a question, it has to be forwarded to department communications staff. From there, a "Byzantine" series of approvals must be sought before the scientist is allowed to respond. In the case of the study of the deteriorating polar ice cap, the request had to go through nine levels of approval.

If, somehow, government decides to let the scientist speak, "media lines" are developed by communications staff. The scientist is expected to stick to the script. Finalizing the talking points can take days or weeks and involve a small army of operatives. The request for answers about "rock snot" resulted in 110 pages of emails among 16 different communications staffers. It's an astonishing waste of taxpayers' money.

The policy effectively prevents the public from hearing from government scientists. Media timelines are short. Because the approval process is so involved, reporters abandon their interview requests.

Some departments have gone further. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, for example, authorizes managers to block scientists from publishing in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Government librarians have to get permission to speak at a conference or school, even on their own time.

How widespread is muzzling? Evidence for Democracy, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization (I sit on its advisory board), graded 16 Canadian federal government departments on their communication and media policies. It found that "overwhelmingly, current media policies do not effectively support open communication between federal scientists and the media" and "government media policies do not protect against political interference in science communication."

Info requests show government's decisions

Journalists have used access to information requests to shed light on how scientists are muzzled, and who is behind the decisions.

Fish scientist Kristi Miller was muzzled by the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister's Office and cabinet. Ministerial Services cancelled the polar ice briefing. Toxics expert Philippe Thomas was stifled by the environment minister's office, as was ozone scientist David Tarasick.

Opposition MPs repeatedly grilled the environment minister about Tarasick's muzzling during Question Period after the story broke in Oct. 2, 2011. On Oct. 3, Peter Kent, then the minister, said "let me say again that we are not muzzling scientists." The next day, he stated categorically, "We do not muzzle our scientists." Two days later, he admonished MPs that "one should not believe everything one reads or hears in the media," and then added Tarasick would be interviewed "depending on his availability." Six months later, the minister suggested that the "circumstances simply did not work out."

But documents show that Tarasick was available and interested in doing the interview. Kent's office silenced Tarasick, but he repeatedly told Parliament the opposite. Nobody was publicly held to account for misinforming Parliament, an oversight for which the opposition is partly responsible.

The government continues to claim it is not muzzling scientists despite clear evidence that it is.

Message control

Almost all the muzzled scientists were studying the environment at a time when oil and pipelines were emerging as the government's priority. Research was increasingly showing that development of the oil sands and fossil fuel use was environmentally unsustainable. Toxins from the oil sands were found to be accumulating, and the threat of climate change was provoking calls to action.

The government's program of total message control let it advance its priorities while suppressing information that raised troubling questions.

The new communications policies appear to have worked. An internal Environment Canada document revealed that in 2008 "media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent." The media silence presaged Canada's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Muzzling added to the public's confusion on climate change. Several MPs and senators have questioned the scientific legitimacy of climate change. In normal times trusted government scientists could have been interviewed to correct their misconceptions.

Cutting scientists out of the media cycle was useful to the government. The silence of scientists was crucial to message control as the government rolled out draconian cuts and legislative changes beginning with the 2011 budget. Environment Canada was severely wounded, its budget ultimately reduced by half. More than $100 million was cut from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, responsible for protecting Canadian waters. Cuts to Libraries and Archives Canada led to the dumpstering of scientific collections -- a modern-day book burning which continues to this day.

The government has still not disclosed what programs were cut; the Parliamentary Budget Officer famously sued (and failed) to obtain this information. Because government scientists were not allowed to speak, news of impact on programs important for Canadian's health and safety trickled out from other sources.

We still have only a partial understanding of what has been lost, but a few examples stand out. Environment Canada's ozone research group -- inventors of the UV index now used around the world -- was dissolved despite having just observed the first ever Arctic ozone hole. The Experimental Lakes Area, a unique facility established in 1968 to protect Canada's freshwater resources, was shuttered.

Environmental protection legislation was subsequently gutted using omnibus legislation, and documents showed that some changes were suggested to the government by the oil industry. Fish habitat protections were eliminated from the Fisheries Act, provoking four former ministers to express their "serious concern." Protections for most rivers and lakes were removed from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. The Environmental Assessment Act was repealed and replaced with much more limited legislation.

The muzzling of scientists contributed to a broader loss of voices. In what might be called a war on dissent, savage cuts were made to non-governmental organizations and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy was eliminated for providing unwelcome advice. Tax audits targeted environmental charities. At the same time, the two reporters who did the most to expose the government's cuts and muzzling program -- Margaret Munro and Mike de Souza -- were laid off.

Science and democracy

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Muzzling represents an erosion of the principle of free speech and impoverishes the public debate. We can't hope to make sound decisions on complex problems like climate change without input from those who know the most about it -- the scientists. But instead, we have a federal government silencing scientists in a scurrilous "attempt to guarantee public ignorance," as the New York Times put it.

Government scientists occupy a special place in our democracy. They are the only scientists paid specifically to protect the public interest. They are also the only scientists whose task is to inform government on scientific matters, to the exclusion of any competing interests. Silencing government scientists ultimately damages the common good.

My colleague Jeff Hutchings once wrote: "Let's be clear. When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. The legitimacy of scientific findings depends crucially on unfettered engagement, review, and discussion among interested individuals, including members of the public."

Let me add to this by saying that when you inhibit science, you inhibit democracy. Muzzling undermines the ability of citizens to exercise their democratic rights. Depriving citizens of scientific evidence weakens their ability to hold policy makers to account. This cannot be tolerated in a free and open society.

The information commissioner's two-and-a-half-year investigation is overdue. The commissioner could have made an important contribution to the present discussion. Release of her report will now presumably wait until after the federal election. If she rules muzzling illegal, the next government will trot out some version of the "bad apples" defence. If, on the other hand, the commissioner finds the government acted legally, the opportunity for candidates to explain how they would remedy this deficit in the law will have been lost.

It now falls to Canadian voters to hold their politicians to account. Candidates in the federal election should be pressed to explain their views on science policy and to commit to letting scientists speak. The U.S. government has a scientific integrity policy that protects the right of scientists to speak to the media and the public about their official work without censorship. Canadians should expect no less.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Science + Tech

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