Letter: Harper government clamp-down on science

Canada's leadership in basic research, environmental, health and other public science is in jeopardy, say scientists.

To the editor:

In his latest MP Report, Dan Albas remarks on “allegations” the federal government muzzles federal research scientists, saying scientists at the two federal research facilities in our region have never made similar complaints to him.

I think any scientist would agree that a lack of anecdotal evidence expressed in a limited number of conversations doesn’t mean that no evidence exists.

Across time, numerous government scientists have said they’ve been barred from speaking freely about their research.  In one case, scientists at an international polar conference in 2012 were not allowed to speak to the media unless government employees were in attendance to monitor and record what they said.

It’s perhaps understandable why Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz interrupted one scientist and had him swept off stage, again in 2012.  George DaPont, president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, had been speaking about an extensive beef recall when Ritz intervened.

It’s harder to imagine why Scott Dallimore, a Natural Resources geologist, needed government approval to talk to journalists in 2010 about his study of a flood in Northern Canada almost 13,000 years ago.

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association explains the Harper government introduced media policies in 2006 to control not only scientists, but also journalists.  Interviews and often the questions to be asked are now vetted ahead of time, and are sometimes denied outright or unduly delayed.  In one instance, a request from The Canadian Press to interview Max Bothwell about his work on algae resulted in 110 pages of emails between 16 different government communications officers.  The CP article went to press before Bothwell could be interviewed.

Just this month, recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist Steve Campana described a research finding that he and his team were not allowed to disclose in Canada.  One of his colleagues presented the work at a U.S. conference, and the story was published by 127 media outlets in 25 countries.

Trying to explain the clamp-down at home, Campana said he didn’t think it was as simple as science conflicting with government policy.  “It’s hard to fathom,” he said.  “It seems to be simply a control issue.”

Late last year, more than 800 scientists from 32 countries called on Harper to end “burdensome restrictions on scientific communication and collaboration faced by Canadian government scientists.”  Canada’s leadership in basic research, environmental, health and other public science is in jeopardy, they said.

The clamp-down has also meant “a loss for the international science community.”

Dianne Varga, Kelowna