By Nick Scroxton

Since 2008 and the (re)election of the conservative government in Canada, there have been some changes to the way media relations are handled. Departments are required to speak with one voice. Nothing new here, just politics right? But what happens when this policy is extended to government scientists? In order to speak with one voice, now scientists must get approval from officials before they can speak to the media.

The protocol states: “Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines.”

And what happens when this message runs counter to Government opinion and policy? What if the rigorous, quantifiable, peer-reviewed scientific results go against what the Government wants to believe based on policy-makers and financial donors? What if the science shows that the Government isn’t doing a very good job at looking after the environment? Well, the answer it would seem in Canada is to stop the scientists speaking.

“As a 2010 document by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) put it, in response to an access to information request, the bureaucracy is now working to create a “zero surprise environment” for the Harper government.”

Kathryn O’Hara, President, Canadian Science Writers’ Association

Now it is necessary for all government scientists’ communications with the media in Canada to be approved. In many cases it is being delayed until past print deadlines, responses are written by officials not scientists and in some, more extreme cases, particularly on more sensitive issues such as climate change, access to scientists is being denied. Let us not forget this is the conservative government who decided to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. And following this new media relations policy, there’s been an 80% drop in reporting on Climate Change. Coincidence?

Its not just confined to climate related science, but across various environmental sciences. See the links at the end of this post for many individual examples.

Perhaps one of the most worrying being the emergence of one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic. This paper was published in Nature, one of the two leading, most prestigious scientific journals. Lead scientist David Tarasick was barred from talking to the media about it for three weeks! All of this at the same time the government was cutting funding to the Ozone monitoring program, leading to the shutting of five vital monitoring stations.

The Canadian government appears to have been quiet on the issue, the only quotes being about defending the policy and none on the denial of access to scientists:

“The Department works daily to ensure it provides the public with timely, accurate, objective and complete information about our policies, programmes, services and initiatives, in accordance with the Federal Government’s Communications Policy,”

Spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, quoted on BBC News.

But an increasing number of scientists believe that something more sinister than just granting approval to speak is at work:

“The Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won’t be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship,” he said. “I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don’t discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is.”

Prof T. Pederson, University of Victoria, quoted by the BBC.

“The only information they are given is that which the government wants, which will then allow a supporting of a particular agenda,”

Prof A. Weaver, University of Victoria, quoted by the BBC.

And journalists are also agreeing:

“The more controversial the story, the less likely you are to talk to the scientists. They (government media relations staff) just stonewall. If they don’t like the question you don’t get an answer.”

M. Munro, Postmedia News, quoted by the BBC

This process is now beginning to alarm the scientific community. At the American Association of the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) meeting in Vancouver last week, the largest non-specialised scientific conference in the world, a series of scientists spoke out against the policy and the current Canadian government.

Harper attacked at science conference | Canada | News | Toronto Sun.

The issue that must always be remembered is that government scientists, who are funded by public money ($7billion a year in Canada), do not work for the government, they work for the public, and the public have a right to know what this science is. Good news or bad news.

Muzzling scientists reduces the spread of scientific knowledge; it reduces the extent to which the general public feels engaged and knowledgeable about scientific discoveries. The transfer of knowledge from scientist to the public should be a number one priority.

“Science sort of depends on debate and discussion,” she said. “If you only have one voice, you don’t have skeptical voice and you don’t have proper debate. So I have a bit of a problem with that.”

M. Munro again, this time quoted by the CBC

What the Canadian government is doing is very, very dangerous: to science, to the public understanding of science, and to free speech.

See these links for more information:

Ms. Elizabeth May YouTube Clip:

Arctic Ozone Hole:

Cuts to Arctic Ozone Monitoring: