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Canada to investigate muzzling of scientists

Canada’s information commissioner has launched an investigation into the ‘muzzling’ of scientists in seven federal agencies, including the departments of the environment, fisheries and oceans and of natural resources, and the National Research Council of Canada.

The University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre  and the non-profit group Democracy Watch filed a complaint in February arguing that government policies restricting federal scientists’ communication with reporters violate Canada’s Access to Information Act. The document, called ‘Muzzling civil servants: a threat to democracy’, says: “the federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories — especially when the scientists’ research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies on matters such as environmental protection, oil sands development, and climate change.”

The investigation follows long-running complaints that Canada’s conservative federal government is anti-science. Last summer, scientists staged a mock funeral protest for ‘the death of evidence’, complaining about serious budget cuts and a tendency of the government to sideline scientific evidence when making policy. Just this March, stories emerged of scientists being barred from a freshwater research site in northern Ontario after the federal government decided to abandon ownership of the renowned Experimental Lakes Area facility starting in September.

Complaints of ‘muzzling’ have been ongoing for several years. Federal scientists are required to get approval from public-relations officers before granting interviews; this process can take minutes or days, and has sometimes left journalists without access to timely information. In 2010, an internal investigation of media policies within the department of environment (Environment Canada), disclosed through the Access to Information Act, said: “our scientists are very frustrated with the new process. They feel the intent of the policy is to prevent them from speaking to media”. Kathryn O’Hara, president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, complained about these practices in a Nature column in 2010.

A good timeline of the events leading to this investigation is presented in the Vancouver Sun.

And a good analysis of the government’s policies, and whether they deserve to be called anti-science, is in Macleans.


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