Ottawa Decides Which Science Makes Press, Panel Tells Global Research Community: Scientists Lose Voice with Harper Government

By Burgmann, Tamsyn | The Canadian Press, February 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Ottawa Decides Which Science Makes Press, Panel Tells Global Research Community: Scientists Lose Voice with Harper Government


Burgmann, Tamsyn, The Canadian Press


VANCOUVER - For almost three weeks after David Tarasick published findings about one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic, the federal scientist was barred from breathing a word about it to the media.

Kristi Miller was similarly gagged from granting interviews about her own research into a virus that might be killing British Columbia's wild sockeye salmon, despite going to print in the prestigious journal Science.

Such incidents aren't one-off occurrences, but instead represent a trend of "muzzling" policies being imposed on Canadian scientists by federal agencies under the Conservative government, a panel told their international peers Friday at a global science conference in Vancouver.

"It's pretty clear that for federal scientists, Ottawa decides now if the researchers can talk, what they can talk about and when they can say it," senior science journalist Margaret Munro, with Postmedia News, told a group gathered at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

"We're not talking about state secrets here."

The views were aired in tandem with the release of an open letter by a coalition of six science and communications organizations, who jointly called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "tear down the wall" that's been raised over the past four years separating scientists, journalists and the public.

"Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the 'consent' of media relations officers," the letter says.

It adds that far too frequently, journalists encounter "unacceptable" delays and denials for interviews.

"Increasingly, journalists have simply given up trying to access federal scientists, while scientists at work in federal departments are under undue pressure in an atmosphere dominated by political messaging."

Munro, an award-winning reporter who's worked in the field more than 30 years, said news coverage of publicly-funded science has plummeted in the years since the Conservatives took office.

"We used to have a very open system of government, where the scientists were actually free to discuss their research with the media," she said. "But it's now become a very closed system with government taking media and message control to sometimes quite incredible extremes."

Among the first agencies whose strict guidelines restricting the flow of information was revealed was Environment Canada, in 2007. …

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