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Stephen Harper Needs to Stop Gagging Canadian Scientists

After the recent controversy surrounding the Harper government's silencing of federally funded science research, we asked our scientist friend to break it all down for us.

by Stephen Buranyi
Mar 14 2013, 4:09pm


"Great work! Now let us never speak of this again."

Stephen Buranyi is a young Canadian scientist who works in cell and systems biology. He is also really into Lil Durk.

Betting against science has historically been a pretty poor idea. The only ones willing to throw down in a major way these days are religious fundamentalists and medical quacks. And while it may hurt the rest of us to accept that humans never rode dinosaurs, no-one wants to truck with the sort of people who claim flu shots will make kids autistic, or offer rewards for photos of HIV in an era where scientists are happily shooting movies of HIV being born. There is a more pernicious sort of denialism that doesn’t oppose scientific inquiry, but selectively ignores or suppresses the parts of it that might harm its short-sighted goals. This approach is very much alive in Stephen Harper’s Canada. Harper had previously become a real darling with environmentalists over his government’s willingness to relax environmental regulations and oversight, and side heavily with industry. But he hit a new low with the revelation that his government’s restrictive new media policy allowed it to issue gag orders on scientists doing federally funded research, at will.  

The first gag order that gained public attention was on Kristi Miller. Miller, a scientist studying salmon for the federal fisheries department, published a report on patterns of salmon mortality in the journal Science. Science, like many high-end journals, sent out press solicitations, 7,400 of them, inviting reporters to contact Miller for comments on her exciting research.  Miller was told by the Prime Minister’s Privy Council that she was not allowed to provide commentary on her work and was under a general gag order regarding contact with journalists. The official line on this order was that the government didn’t want her discussing research in advance of her testimony at a federal inquiry on salmon stock depletion in BC. Fair enough? Oh wait no, that’s not fair at all.

Even less justification was given when David Tarasick, a government climate researcher who was attached to a study in the journal Nature detailing a giant, record-breaking, terrifying hole in the ozone layer, was denied contact with reporters. The gag order was later lifted, ostensibly, as Tarasick gave telephone interviews that were subject to government monitoring, and was accompanied by an Environment Canada media officer to scientific conferences.      

Several Postmedia journalists deserve praise for a series of excellent articles that first exposed this policy and its frightening scope, via a vigorous application of the access to information act. Public response was hearteningly angry. Science journalists organized petitions. Nature, the journal that originally published Tarasick’s work, issued a strong condemnation. And a group dramatically named “Death of Evidence” organized a white-coated march on parliament hill to protest for scientist’s freedom. Follow up articles were published, commentators commentated, and the Harper government responded with its signature move, saying nothing, changing nothing. 


Even saying "meep meep" might be too much under this government.

So where is this all leading? Does the government rule access to research with an iron surgical glove? Does this affect our ability to produce the hot new research everyone expects out of Canada? Does it even matter if scientists provide commentary on their work? Can we get a sweet creation museum now? Maybe.

We’re at a place where there is a clear policy of suppression of research the government doesn’t want discussed. This is unequivocally a bad thing. Government research is funded with public money and this approach stands directly between scientists and the people that fund their research. It looks especially bad when the gag order is exercised, as it was, to silence researchers detailing environmental damage given the Harper government’s much criticized record on the environment.

The potential for the government to gag researchers, however, is limited to those that work directly for government agencies. The Canadian government funds a huge amount of research via “arm’s length” funding bodies like the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) and National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), CIHR answers to the health minister, and NSERC answers to a crazy person who was disappointed when we stopped taking asbestos out of the ground and selling it to India.  These bodies mainly fund research at public universities. Locke Rowe, chair of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department at the University of Toronto told me that there was no policy that required university researchers to contact the media office or anyone else when speaking to a reporter. Several other scientists I spoke with, including researchers affiliated with politically sensitive fields like climate change, confirmed that they had never been contacted or limited in their dealings with the media. If you think “the government can’t gag everyone” seems like a pretty weak upside, you’d be right. Especially as they seem intent on continuing to issue these gag orders in the face of local and international resistance.

A lot of the commentary surrounding the high-profile gag orders wondered about the importance of scientists speaking about their own work. This sort of talk reached its nadir with the suggestion in Maclean’s that scientists be allowed to speak only on topics they have been peer-reviewed on, nothing else, also that they don’t communicate well, and are eggheads. I took pretty much that whole article personally. Scientists should be allowed to speak openly about their research or anything else because they are people. This freedom can be helpful in the case of their research, which can be blindingly, ridiculously, difficult to understand. It’s telling that the government didn’t try suppressing the actual research articles, an unnecessary step when only a fraction of the public can understand the findings within them without instruction. The fear in a lot of the commentary stems from the idea that the public will accept whatever a scientist chooses to say about their research or any other thing, which seems unlikely, Canadians' distrust of scientists is high enough to make government level climate denialism unnecessary. 

We’re now nearly two years on from the first reaction to this draconian policy and nothing has changed. All scientists employed directly by the federal government are working behind a screen with all requests for interview directed through a media office, and any researcher subject to gag order without justification. And the policy may be expanding. Elizabeth May, Green Party leader and Member of Parliament, recently discovered that requests for information by MP’s are treated similarly.

Responses by the public and the media haven’t changed the policy, no surprise there, but they have been successful in fighting the suppression of information. Many more people have heard of Miller and Tarasick’s work through the controversy than would have if it was a blurb in the health and science section. Continued engagement and attention is the best way to counter the government’s deeply cynical strategy of dumbly outlasting its opponents.  It’s frustrating that at a time when other countries are pushing progressive science and transparency policies Canadians are stuck shaking signs outside parliament, demanding access to the fish mortality data that their tax money paid for.  
 

Follow Stephen on Twitter: @stephenburanyi

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