Last July on Parliament Hill in Canada, funeral bells tolled for an unlikely victim. Hundreds of scientists clad in white lab coats paced mournfully, lamenting what they were calling ‘the death of science in Canada’. They were responding to alarming reports of government interference in the communication of scientific findings. Last week Canada’s Information Commissioner, who provides arms-length oversight of the federal government’s access to information practices, announced that seven government departments are now under investigation for censoring scientists.
The first accusations of censorship started in early 2008, when the Conservative Party of Canada gave the directive that anyone employed with Environment Canada would now need permission from the Minister’s office to speak with the media. This directive was since expanded, forbidding all scientists in government departments and research councils from talking to the media without prior consent. The Minister’s office can, and often does, refuse interviews, or asks that interview questions be written and submitted in advance. When permission is granted, it is often long after a news story has lost steam and attention has moved elsewhere.
When Dr Kristi Miller reported in the prestigious journal Science that viruses from aquaculture were spreading and killing wild fish populations, the story caught the attention of international media. Requests for interviews flooded the Minister’s office. They were all denied. Requests for data from Health Canada monitoring of radiation released from Japan’s Fukushima disaster – also denied. Last year, when scientists from around the world gathered at the International Polar Year Conference, Canadian scientists were shadowed by government ‘media relations contacts’ who monitored and even recorded conversations. Scientists have been receiving threatening reminders of the policy, and many feel that their jobs are at stake.
Peter Kent, the Minister of the Environment, defends these actions by stating that communications management is a standard tool in large organizations. While this may well be true, the government is taking unprecedented measures to withhold information believed to be counter to their economic goals, especially those relevant to oil development. By micromanaging scientific communication, they hope to restrict the information that reaches the public, thereby controlling the conversation.
It is a chilling signal for the international community that this level of censorship can occur in Canada, which in the past has ranked highest in the Western hemisphere on the Freedom of Press index published by Reporters Without Borders. Not to be taken lightly, Canada fell ten spots over the past year.
Scientists systematically gather information on the world. They make detailed observations on the state and trends of natural systems, and are often the first to take notice when human activity upsets these systems, and when the effects may consequently affect human well being. However, such research is effective only when communicated to the rest of the world.
Policy decisions cannot be based solely on science. They must acknowledge social, political and economic dimensions. However, government censorship of science will only lead policies related to our environment, health, and safety away from evidence and aimlessly towards ideology, in the process producing citizens who can’t tell the difference.