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Canadian Scientists Say the Government is Muzzling Them and They Want it to Stop

But there is disagreement over the extent to which scientists are being silenced and if, as civil servants, they should even have free rein to speak publicly.
Photo by Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Hundreds of union activists representing Canada's scientists held protests in cities across the country this week, demanding the federal government end what they see as rampant political interference of scientific research.

There would have been thousands of government scientists joining them, according to the unions, but they worried that if they went, their jobs could become casualties of the Canadian government's so-called "war on science".


"Our scientists are scared," said Catherine Gagnon, mobilization coordinator at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), at Tuesday's sparsely-attended protest in Ottawa.

The protest was organized to call attention to union efforts to get a "scientific integrity" clause included in their researchers' contract agreement.

It's the first time such a clause would be used in a collective agreement between the Canadian government and its scientists, and is needed to put an end to government muzzling once and for all, the groups say.

Advocates argue that keeping government science in the shadows is detrimental to public health and safety because it deals with issues that affect the everyday lives of Canadians, like healthcare, the environment, and the economy.

But there is disagreement among experts over the extent to which scientists are being silenced and if, as civil servants, they should even have free rein to speak publicly. Even so, there are numerous examples of science journalists facing major roadblocks while reporting on government research, and cases where scientists have been denied the opportunity to attend conferences or collaborate with other scientists around the world.

In 2010, a Natural Resources geologist was not allowed to speak with a journalist about his report in Nature about an historic flood; in 2012, staffers for Environment Canada were sent to monitor scientists at a conference in Montreal; in 2014, a Canadian Press reporter's request to interview a Fisheries and Oceans scientist about his algae research was denied.


PIPSC, which represents approximately 15,000 scientists and engineers, says the scientific integrity clause will make it easier for government scientists to discuss their work with the public, protect their work from political interference and censorship, and allow them to attend conferences and collaborate with other non-government scientists.

"To some extent, the clause is borne of desperation because we've tried everything else to solve the problem," Peter Bleyer, a PIPSC spokesperson, told VICE News.

A 2013 PIPSC survey of around 4,000 of its science members found 90 percent of them felt they weren't allowed to speak with media about their work, while nearly half reported instances where their department "suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public." And 25 percent reported being asked to exclude or alter information for "non-scientific" reasons. The survey concludes "a chill has fallen on federal government science and scientists."

Last year, an open letter signed by more than 800 scientists from 32 countries criticized the Canadian government for placing "burdensome restrictions on scientific communication and collaboration" on its scientists.

Canada's information commissioner is currently investigating several government departments over allegations of scientist muzzling.

The government has never admitted to interfering with or censoring the work of its scientists. It has, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, implemented new communications protocols for researchers speaking with members of the public or the media that requires a specific approvals process.


Scott French, spokesperson for Ed Holder, the Minister for Science and Technology, told VICE News in an emailed statement that while ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments, scientists who work for the government are "readily available" to discuss their research with media. For example, Health Canada "fielded" more than 3000 media requests last year and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans "fielded" 834.

French said these numbers include instances where scientists gave interviews with journalists, but he did not say how many.

In 2014, Evidence for Democracy, an Ottawa-based government science advocacy group, ranked media policies of 16 science-based federal departments. On average, the departments scored a C- for the communications policies, which the report says do not support timely or effective science communication. The report gave similar media policies in the US an average B- grade, noting scientists there can much more freely interact with the public.

Steve Campana, a scientist who retired early from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans after 32 years to work at a university in Iceland, has been on a media blitz this week, calling out the Canadian government for perpetuating what he calls a "toxic" environment for federal scientists. He told CBC that cumbersome communications policies are "leading to a death spiral for government science" and claims that as a government scientist, he was not even allowed to speak to the public about research that made the government looked good.


For example, his research on how to tell the age of lobster and shrimp was not approved for release to Canadian media.

"We're at the point where the vast majority of our senior scientists are in the process of leaving now disgusted as I am with the way things have gone," Campana said.

Related: Leading Scientists Tell the Nation's Museums to Sever Ties With the Koch Brothers

VICE News tested just how easy it is to speak to scientists about their work in a timely way by sending media requests to five government departments.

VICE News asked Health Canada for an expert to explain how stem cells may have commercial application; the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development department for an expert about the effects of increased resource exploration on caribou and endangered wildlife; the Department of Fisheries and Oceans about how shipping and oil spills could affect beluga whales; Natural Resources Canada about the seismic science around fracking; and Environment Canada about the government's new CO2 emissions targets.

Of those five requests, only Fisheries and Oceans and Natural Resources Canada made scientists available within the 24-hour deadline. Health Canada referred VICE News to another government agency, which issued links to two private organizations. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada said they didn't have scientists on staff who could speak to the issue. Environment Canada never returned VICE News' request.


Honn Kao, a seismologist with Natural Resources Canada, spoke to VICE News at length about his research on fracking and earthquakes. (It turns out fracking does cause earthquakes, but that's not necessarily cause for alarm.)

Trevor Swerdfager, a senior manager at the science division of Fisheries and Oceans who has a background in science, told VICE News that, despite what Campana says, there is no culture of fear in his department.

Swerdfager gave a 30-minute briefing on the impact of increased ocean traffic, oil spills, and offshore oil exploration, including much of the science behind the department's work.

He also addressed the allegations that the government is muzzling scientists.

"I don't know how — even if I wanted to — I don't know how I'd muzzle them," Swerdfager said.

Swerdfager was upfront: there were two instances where he did have to shut-down a scientist's research. But that, he said, is because information contained in the scientist's report was based on information collected by an undercover fisheries agent, and publishing the report may have compromised his identity — and his safety.

Other than that, he said, "I'm just not aware of us ever having said to Dr. So-and-So: 'no, you can't talk to whoever.'"

Swerdfager admitted there is a policy that requires certain types of communications to go through the minister's office, but he believes the problem is being overstated.


"The idea that we're muzzling scientists is a nice rhetorical flourish," he said, pointing out that there is a treasure trove of scientific research on the department's website.

"I'm not naive," he added. "I know that it's possible to pressure people in more subtle ways. I wouldn't for an instant want to suggest that we're operating in nirvana and everyone is singing hymns."

A lack of communication between the government and the public hampers understanding and innovation, he said.

"There's a lot of good stuff that environment groups are engaged in, that industry is working on, that First Nations are engaged in," he says, adding that he's "exasperated" when the government and other stakeholders are talking past each other.

"I don't think it's possible to communicate enough," he said.

Others are critical of the claim that government scientists ought to have complete freedom to discuss the work they do.

Peter Phillips, a public policy and science professor at the University of Saskatchewan and former senior policy advisor for the Canadian government, told VICE News that like any other government researcher, a scientist's role is to support government decision-making, not discuss or debate their work with the public.

"If you look at scientists as exceptional, this looks like muzzling. If you look at scientists as public servants, this looks like a uniformity of [communications] policy across the public sector," he said. "You don't hear economists or lawyers talking independently of their ministers about policy issues or their evidence."

Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, told VICE News this thinking is harmful to Canadian society and that Canadians should have access to research that they are paying for with public tax dollars.

"Often the work government scientists are doing is very relevant research that directly impacts the lives of Canadians," she said. "These scientists are monitoring our air quality, the safety of the drugs we get from our doctors, and our wildlife species. Of course we should have access to it, it's our science."

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