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Why is our government censoring and suppressing science?
- See more at: http://www.scienceuncensored.ca/#sthash.lhbuJZrN.dpuf
We are seeing an unprecedented shift in the way our government handles public science. Scientists are being censored – they are no longer able to freely communicate their research with the media and the public. New government policies have the potential to suppress public science by making it harder for government scientists to publish their work and collaborate with scientists outside of government. Join 6480 fellow Canadians and send a message!
Scientists and journalists have spoken out, but the government didn’t listen. We need to show the federal government that Canadians stand behind our publicly-funded scientists and want them to be able to communicate openly with the media and the public.
Since 2007, there has been an unprecedented shift in the way our government deals with public science. Government scientists are no longer able to freely communicate their research with the media and the public1. New policies have the potential to suppress science further by making it harder for government scientists to publish their work and collaborate with scientists outside of government.
Informed public debate is the foundation of democracy. Informed means, at the very least, having the scientific information that we have paid for through our tax dollars available for discussion. This means allowing our publicly-funded scientists – whose salaries and research costs we pay – to communicate freely.
The federal government’s position is that no censorship or restriction is occurring. They insist that this is just standard communication management2. Gary Goodyear, Minister of Science and Technology, has stated that the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”3 Government spokespeople have repeatedly said that they value science and that important decisions will be made based on the scientific evidence.
Yet journalists now find that their questions to scientists are being rerouted to the government’s media relations team. Often, journalists’ questions are as basic as asking what a scientific term means, or what the purpose of a study was. We’re not talking about matters of national security. Scientists aren’t even allowed to answer questions on topics such as snowfall patterns4 or bison genes.
There have been numerous examples of scientists being prohibited from publicly discussing their peer-reviewed science5. At scientific conferences, they are increasingly being paired with a government communications person (commonly referred to as ‘handlers’) who accompany them6. Science journalists have reported week long delays in getting answers to simple questions, if they get an answer at all4.
In early 2012, a number of science and science journalism organizations signed a letter to Prime Minister Harper asking that the muzzling of government scientists stop7. Despite this and other actions, the muzzling has continued and the situation is getting worse. Just last month Democracy Watch and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre submitted a letter to the Information Commissioner asking her to investigate and determine whether the new science-communication policies are even legal8.
We’re now seeing communication policies that put up additional barriers for government scientists to publish their work and make it harder for them to collaborate with non-governmental scientists. New rules at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) allow government managers to stop the publication of research even after it has been through the peer-review process and accepted by a scientific journal9. These new rules apply not only to government scientists, but even to their non-government collaborators. According to the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, this policy is designed to protect Canadian intellectual property10.
Rules like this are not the norm. A U.S. scientist working on a joint Canada-U.S. Arctic science project recently spoke out when the DFO insisted that he sign a strict confidentiality agreement that would prohibit him from talking about the research with anyone without the approval of our government10. He refused to sign saying that the new rules went against academic freedom and could result in muzzling.
These new policies also make it harder for our public scientists to do their jobs – open communication within the scientific community is how science progresses.
Does this sound like an appropriate communication plan for a transparent and accountable government?
Does this sound like a government that values scientific evidence and its important role in informing both public debate and government programs and policies?
If you think these new rules go too far, join us in calling for a new government policy – similar to policies that have been adopted in the United States and Britain – that makes it explicit that scientists are able to communicate their results openly and freely to the public, except where there is compelling evidence that doing so is not in the public’s best interest.
Scientists and journalists have spoken out, but the government didn’t listen. We need to show them that all Canadians stand behind our public scientists and want them to be able to communicate openly with the media and the public.
Here’s how you can take action to support the open and transparent communication of public science:
- Send a message to the government telling them that you want public scientists to speak freely.
- Help get the word out that government scientists are being muzzled. Share on Facebook, Twitter and email your friends.
- Please donate today. We are a new advocacy group and we need your support to continue to bring attention to this issue.
- Environment Canada ‘muzzles’ scientists’ dealings with media (Ottawa Citizen, February 1 2008)
- Muzzling scientists? (CBC Power and Politics, February 21 2013)
- Marc Garneau promises to ungag government scientists (Ottawa Citizen, February 27 2013)
- Canadian bureaucracy and a joint study with NASA (Ottawa Citizen, April 20 2012)
- Ottawa silences scientist over West Coast salmon study (Vancouver Sun, July 27 2011)
- Federal scientists closely monitored during polar conference (CBC, April 24 2012)
- Letter from science and science journalism organizations. (iPolitics, February 16 2012)
- Could muzzling federal scientists be illegal? (CBC, February 20 2013)
- New Policy Gives Government Power to Muzzle DFO Scientists (iPolitics, February 7 2013)
- Scientist calls new confidentiality rules on Arctic project ‘chilling’ (Postmedia News, Feb 14 2013)
Is the federal government turning Canadian science into for-profit only?
Science is under attack in Canada.
It’s hard to have to write that, given that Canada has some of the leading scientists and research facilities in the world, but it’s also hard to draw any other conclusion, based on what the federal government has been up to for the past 7 years.
Just from reading through Huffington Post‘s ‘Stifling Science‘ page: They shut down the Office of the National Science Advisor, which advised the Prime Minister on issues of science, technology and the environment. They closed the doors of the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory(PEARL), an important lab for studying the effects of climate change on the environment. They canceled the budgets of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) — a facility known around the world for conducting exemplary science in the field of water quality — and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) — which sought to mesh economic and environmental issues to keep Canada prosperous while maintaining a clean environment. The also withdrew the country from the Kyoto Protocol treaty on climate change.
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It doesn’t stop there, though. They have apparently also ‘muzzled’ government scientists by forcing them to sign agreements preventing them from speaking to the public or the media unless a federal representative gave the ‘all-clear’ to do so, an activity that earned them a rant from Rick Mercer:
There’s a chance to be fair here, though. Not all science has been slashed. It seems that anything that helps development of the Athabasca oilsands is doing just fine.
“This is about the government’s priorities, and the government’s priorities include oilsands development, which, I should also add, they subsidize to the tune of billions of dollars each year,” said Tom Duck, a professor at Dalhousie University who’s research focuses on work done at PEARL, in aHuffington Post interview. “So their priorities involve oilsands development, and anything that they see as interfering with that is getting attacked and is getting cut.”
“What this means is that there has been, for most university-based scientists, a one- to two-year gap in funding. And that is very serious. Because what that’s done is precipitate the collapse of many different research programs,” he added. “This is not about there not being enough money. We spent $18 million on War of 1812 celebrations. We’re spending on the order of $10 million this year on ‘Action Plan’ ads.”
For comparison, PEARL costs about $1.5 million to run each year. The ELA does its work for about $2 million a year.
And it’s not just the oilsands. Science in Canada, as far as the federal government is concerned, seems to be all about what can turn a profit. At least that’s the feeling people are getting from the 2007 Industry Canada report titled Mobilizing Science and Technology to Canada’s Advantage.
There’s been plenty of sharp criticism directed at the government about all of this, saying that it’s an assault on democracy, and calling for an end to the ‘politicization’ of science, but it has, apparently, done very little to change their minds on any of these issues.
“Five years ago, I never would have thought they’d be closing the Experimental Lakes Area,” said John Smol, according to Huffington Post. “You go to any conference in the world, you just have to say ELA and everyone knows exactly what you’re talking about. That’s a jewel in our scientific crown, if you like, in Canada. Gone. There’s a lot of things that happened that I did not predict would happen. So it’s worse than I thought it would be five years ago.”
Fortunately, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne stepped in last week to save the Experimental Lakes Area, promising funding to keep it running for now, at least. That’s a great move on her part, considering that the science done at the ELA has helped protect our water ways, the environment, and the health and welfare of the Canadian people (not to mention people around the world).
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Not every project is so fortunate, though, and the entire scientific community is feeling the effects of all this.
“It’s not isolated,” said Duck. “This is across the scientific community. This is a specific example for what happened to my group, but any research group, particularly in environmental science, is utterly crippled by this funding gap. That’s a story that is just absolutely pervasive.”
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