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Analysis – Canada’s Code of Silence

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There is, and has been, a growing concern amoung intellectual professionals in the scientific and research community that their freedoms are being trampled upon and their research denied access to the public. There are also certain agencies that have been making calls for more funding into scientific and environmental research, and the budget for 2012 is only months away. This means there will be a strong concerted push from some of these agencies and individuals, in the coming months.

Every year, the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) hands out an award titled the Code of Silence award. The president of the association has stated, “This award has been around for more than a decade”  and the award is normally given to those that stifle and block out the ability to communicate and convey the truth. Back in 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper earned their Code of Silence Award on this very premise. During their 2011 Award give away, the President of CAJ said, “this year’s crop of dishonourable nominees has proven that governments just aren’t getting it, information belongs to citizens, not spin-doctors,” and the 2011 award was granted to Natural Resources Canada (NRC).

The NRC is the ministry of the government of Canada responsible for natural resources, energy, minerals, metals, forests, earth sciences, mapping, and remote sensing. Established in 1995, the ministry combined the Departments of Energy, Mines and Resources, and Forestry. Their mandate has been to ensure the responsible development of Canada’s natural resources, including energy, forests, minerals and metals. In fact, their official website states their mandate is, “to help build an innovative, knowledge-based economy for Canada through research and development, technology commercialization and industry support.” I challenge this mandate, arguing that the NRC’s mandate for helping to build a “knowledge-based” economy is severely being limited and politicized, and its effects impact are severe, resulting in dire consequences for democracy, advocacy, and journalistic credibility.

Due to their mandate, the scientists at the NRC, many of them planetary experts, carry out a whole variety of research on things such as seabeds, melting glaciers, and trees. They have long been able to discuss their research with others, until the media relations rules were changed in the spring of 2011.

Andrew Weaver, a Climatologist at the University of Victoria, said the new rules were “Orwellian“. He stated that the public had a right to know what federal scientists were discovering and learning. The change was explained by Judy Samoil, NRC’s western regional communications manager. In an email she said, “We have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview requests by the minister’s office.” In an access to information request, Postmedia discovered that NRC scientists needed “pre-approval” from Minister Christian Paradis’ office in order to speak with journalists. Their “media lines” also required ministerial approval as well according to the documents.  The documents also said the “new” rules went into force in March and applied to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago as well. This helps to explain why the NRC barred an internationally-known Canadian researcher from speaking about his work on the breaking of a prehistoric ice-dam 130 centuries ago until vetted “media lines” could be approved by the minister’s office.

Privatization of Research Articles

There was also another change that went under the radar, a loss that will hurt the democratic fabric of independent researchers and self-learning individuals. In the beginning of 2011, Canadians lost free online access to more than a dozen Canadian science journals as a result of the privatization of the National Research Council’s government-owned publishing arm. This effectively meant, that scientists, businesses, consultants, political aides and other individuals who would like to have read about new scientific discoveries in the 17 journals published by National Research Council Research Press were either forced to pay $10 per article or receive free access through an institution that has an annual subscription with the NRC. The new fees were placed in effect since Jan. 1 2011, and their impact will likely only become greater over time as the cost of purchasing what are usually monthly or bi-monthly journals piles up. The back issues that were published between the 1950s up until December 2010 have remained free for all Canadians. The big issue with this privatization, is that Canadians have been cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, and is of significant public interest — whether it is about fish stocks, genetically modified crops or mercury pollution in the Athabasca River.

Leslie Weir, chair of the Ontario Council of University Libraries and chief librarian at the University of Ottawa said, “The academic  community, which is very supportive of open access, was very disappointed to see this change in direction.” Weir said the journals, which publish research from around the world, represent the only scientific-focused press of its kind in Canada.

Canadian Science Publishing, a not-for-profit company, took over NRC Research Press journals in September 2010 after a federal government review decided scientific publishing should not be a government function. However, it maintained free online access to new articles until December. Cameron Macdonald, executive director of Canadian Science Publishing, said the impact of the change in access is “very little” on the average scientist across Canada because subscriptions have been purchased by many universities, federal science departments and scientific societies. He said, “I think the vast majority of researchers weren’t all that concerned. So long as the journals continued with the same mission and mandate, they were fine with that.” Macdonald said the journals were never strictly open access, as online access was free only inside Canadian borders and only since 2002.

What Macdonald doesn’t understand, is that ordinary Canadians that would be interested in reading these publications have now been cut off from doing so, even though they contribute to government services through taxation. So for a scientist working with an organization – it may not seem like much, but for an independent scientist, or someone that performs scientific experiments as a hobbyist will not have that access. Macdonald said researchers continue to have the option to make their articles open access — freely accessible around the world — if they pay the press a $3,000 fee, an option that has been available for three or four years. But he admitted that option is only used for about 10 to 12 articles a year. He admitted, “Researchers are loath to spend valuable grant money on it.”

Why is this such a big issue? Well because the taxpayers pay the government and the government then distributes money for various projects, including public research funding. That public research funding, should be made freely available, since it is the taxpayers that helped source the funding to begin with. The government should not allow an private organization to sell the research articles back to the public, material that the public paid to have produced in the first place.
http://i694.photobucket.com/albums/vv308/IVAN3MAN/d4e18da5.jpg

Within the last few years, activists, journalists, and scientists have been clamoring and pushing to have greater transparency.  The problem is that key federal science based departments and agencies such as Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada have implemented new communications policies that have resulted in an incapacity to communicate sound independent scientific information in a timely fashion. This becomes important because Canadians rely on accurate scientific information in order to establish informed decisions on everyday life such as the products they buy, food they eat, medicines they administer, and so forth.

There are many groups and individuals that have problems with this communications policy that seems to have came from the top-down. Here are some notable examples.

1) In one instance, Natural Resources Canada refused to let one of its senior scientists talk about research on the break-up of a prehistoric ice dam. NRCan geologist Scott Dalimroe was the Canadian co-author of the study on the ice dam published last spring. He was told he had to get “media lines” cleared by his minister’s office before responding to requests for interviews. It took Dallimore a full week to receive ministerial approval, but by then the study had been released and his international co-authors were widely interviewed.

2) In August 2011, Dr. Miller, a scientists with DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) claimed senior officials close to the prime minister prevented her from talking to the media about her research into the 2009 sockeye salmon collapse in B.C. During a federal inquiry, Miller said she learned about the gag order only through the inquiry and believed officials with the DFO were OK with her giving interviews about the publication of her article in the journal science. She said, “I learned only through the inquiry process that the decision of not allowing me to speak to the press after the Science paper came out, came out of the Privy Council Office and not from the DFO.” The federal government did not dispute Miller’s suggestion that it was the Privy Council Office, which serves the prime minister, that refused to allow Miller to talk to the media. Dimitri Soudas, communications director at the Prime Minister’s Office said, “Dr. Miller’s testimony was thorough, extensive, and speaks for itself. Her study and transcripts of her testimony is publicly available…the government will not interfere with Justice Cohen’s work.”  And if you followed the article written on the sockeye salmon case, additional information on this ground breaking case is revealed.

The backlash against the Prime Minister has been so great, there have been internet meme’s created out of it.

Stephen Harper Meme

3) There was also the case of James Birch, student researcher at the University of Toronto. He works in the Adaptations and Impacts Research Section and is working for Dr. Brad Bass, who is currently employed for Environment Canada. Although Bass cannot speak out on research measures without prior approval because he is employed by the agency, James Birch can.  James Birch said, “Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office put forth by the Harper Government”.

Here is a short quote from an open letter James Birch wrote:

Over the past several months we have seen major cuts to Environment Canada that are leaving it without any real scientific or research power. We have seen many prominent scientific jobs cut, research funding slashed, and our ability to effectively do environmental assessment and management largely neutralized. Our scientists have been muzzled, and their ability to go to press has become tightly managed by a new “media relations office” put forth by the Harper Government. There is no more money to do research on Adaptations and Impacts as we do, projects on water quality have been halted (including those serving Aboriginal reserves and northern communities), and many of the tools and researchers necessary in order to adequately measure the consequences of the Athabasca Tar Sands are presently in a questionable state of limbo. This rearrangement of staff – preceding the 5-10% first round of budget cuts coming in February as part of Harper’s “balancing the books” will effectively leave Environment Canada powerless and effectively useless. They even went so far as to slate twenty-one out of twenty-four water quality monitoring stations in the Northwest Territories for shutdown – an act that managed to embarrass Harper (who was touring the region at the time) sufficiently for it to be reversed. But the cuts and targeting of research in the public interest continues. Tony Clement perhaps put it best: Environment Canada is now “open for business” – you may now hire their award-winning scientists at will, privatize their research and keep them from working in the public interest. One of the most prominent areas to be hit was climate change research and adaptations

 

This can be corroborated by a press release that was once issued by the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (CFCAS). Dr. Gordo McBean, Chair of the CFCAS said, “Budget 2010 is basically a nightmare scenario for scientists across the country — our community is gutted.

In less than 12 months, major research collaborations among industry, government laboratories and universities will collapse — and with them the jobs of numerous scientists, students and technicians. The country is already bleeding talent… Without sound scientific information, how will the government evaluate the effectiveness of green technologies, or build northern infrastructure, or develop our energy industry, or assure water supply and clean air?

5) Back in 2011, prominent journalist Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writer’s Association (CSWA) wrote a letter to the Prime Minister Stephen Harper and leaders of the other national parties. In the letter, she pleaded with government to “unshackle” its scientists by allowing them to speak. This was just recently covered by Mark Hume in the Globe. The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists, and authors in Canada. O’Hara said the federal government spends billions each year on scientific research, and taxpayers must be able to examine the results. “How can you get a real sense of … value in money going toward science?,” said O’Hara. She added, “The public also needs to be able to see whether government policy is based on evidence uncovered using taxpayer money. In the last few years we’ve seen — under the Harper government, at least — a real concerted effort to keep controls on what the evidence is saying,”  The letter included examples of cases where federal scientists were the lead authors of high-profile papers on salmon and climate change, but were not permitted to give interviews and one case given was that of Dr. Miller who’s case is discussed above. One of the crucial problems when scientists cannot freely answer questions, is that it is then difficult for journalists to do a good job on covering the research, and as a result, the public can become misinformed.

And here are several other figures repeating the same thing.

David Tarasick, scientists with Environment Canada played a big role in discovering a giant hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic. At the time, he said, “[There’s been] concern about an Arctic ozone hole circulating in the scientific community for a while…but the Arctic ozone loss has never been this extensive. It’s very hard for people to talk about this right now, because of the fact that people are being told, ‘You can’t even mention this to your colleagues’.

Elizabeth May of the Green Party of Canada said, “Muzzling Kristi Miller is unfortunately part of a larger pattern of the Harper government silencing scientists from all departments, preventing any information from reaching the public.  Any information that does emerge is carefully screened and scripted by political communications officers in Ottawa. This is totally unacceptable.  Miller’s work has been published in Science, one of the world’s most prestigious journals, and yet the public is being blocked from learning about her research.”

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada is the union that represents federal scientists whose work impacts the daily lives of Canadians.  Gary Corbett, President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada said, “Government control of information must end and the undermining of Canada’s public scientists must stop. Whatever happened to the Harper government’s commitment to transparency? This government, by suppressing access to this information, is depriving the Canadian and international scientific communities of significant discoveries. Canadians have a right to the results of research supported by Canadian tax dollars. The findings and benefits of scientific and medical research should be available to all Canadians to enable engaged public policy awareness, debate and development. Canadian scientists must be allowed to publish their research in world renowned journals so that society can advance through their findings and the peer review process.”

 

This is just a small sample of the “muzzling” that has been going on for quite a few years now. However the policy was tightened even further last year. Scientists, activists, journalists, researchers, and union groups have all had big issues with the current communications policy. The silencing of researchers that has been occurring in Canada seems to be driven more by political ideology. Of course, this may seem like a blanket statement at first, but if you place this in the bigger overall context of several other incidents occurring within Canada at the moment, such as the judicial inquiry into the salmon, the Northern Gateway oil pipelines expecting to be built, and the nuclear leaks that have happened…then you can understand  how ‘muzzling’ scientists does disservice to our proud democracy that we so boldly claim to the world.

 

Here is Youtube Clips during Question Period in Parliament on the issue for additional context:

Megan Lesie, Peter Kent ~ Nov 22, 2011 — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zMLc09hdRuY

Elizabeth May ~ Nov 16, 2011 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK9fTy3qCZo

Kirsty Duncan ~ Oct 20, 2011 — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-YyKJC1SrQ

Megan Leslie ~ Oct 4, 2011 — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsqbdceWILg

 

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