Canadian Environmental Scientists Muzzled
Government environmental scientists work under gag
By GLEN BLOUIN, Freelance September 25, 2010
While campaigning for office, Stephen Harper promised an open, transparent and accountable government.
Following are a few examples of how this transparency has unfolded at Environment Canada:
At a symposium in Burlington, Ont., an Environment Canada (EC) researcher presented a report on bisphenol A (BPA), a controversial chemical present in the bodies of nine out of 10 Canadians.
Following up, a freelance journalist approached for clarification. An EC media officer intervened, advising that interviews must be pre-approved by her office under new departmental policy. The questions went unanswered, the story unwritten.
A West Coast reporter requested an interview with an EC researcher on a significant but non-controversial subject -owls inadvertently poisoned by rodenticides. The scientist advised that he must seek approval from his communications adviser. Two weeks later, the adviser called the journalist, requesting a list of intended questions. Months afterward, the scientist apologized: "Things got somewhat bogged down in the dealings with our media folks."
The story has yet to appear. Another lost opportunity to inform the public.
At a Canadian College of Health Service Executives conference in London, EC researchers made a presentation on the health impacts of climate change. Afterward, University of Western Ontario journalism students requested they repeat the same message on video. The scientists declined, citing it was not permitted under department policy.
Once again, an education opportunity lost.
Isolated examples? Not remotely. They occur daily within the inner sanctum of Environment Canada, the primary department responsible for researching climate change, the oil sands, and energy, water, chemical, and wildlife issues.
Should Canadians care if journalists cannot have access to scientists directly? Definitely. With Environment Canada in communications lockdown-mode, the media are the sole conduit for experts to provide unbiased information.
Both Liberal and Conservative governments have previously erected hurdles to hamper access to scientists; under this regime the phenomenon has escalated beyond control. In an email to a journalist an EC scientist lamented, "Oh for the good old days."
Control is the operative word. If government controls access to information, it controls what Canadians know.
Call it shackling, muzzling, or gagging; it is a slippery slope toward the authoritarianism typical of Third-World countries and dictatorships -but subtler and sophisticated.
University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler states: "Muzzling under the Harper government is the worst it’s ever been."
The Vancouver Sun quoted University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver: "The concept of free speech is non-existent at Environment Canada." Weaver is close to the epicentre. As one who regularly co-authors studies with EC colleagues, he understands the impacts on federal scientists. He calls it "Orwellian," and says that as a result, "morale is at an all-time low."
Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, stated: "Environment Canada seems to be the one department we hear the most complaints about from our (57,000) members."
EC scientists, many world-renowned in their fields, are not permitted to speak directly on their areas of expertise. If the issue is sensitive to this government’s agenda -hot topics such as climate change or the oil sands -authorization is required from the minister, the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Privy Council, adding up to seven layers of inefficient, unproductive, costly, and time-consuming bureaucracy.
In the end, political ideology trumps science.
Environment Canada "informs" the public via canned and sterilized press releases and its tightly-screened website ( http://www.ec.ca).PIPSC scientists complain the website emphasizes photo-ops for the minister rather than research results.
Ironically, the function of media relations has devolved into one of impeding media relations -a recurring theme at this spring’s PIPSC conference.
Stephen Lewis asked: "Where are the scientific voices? Where is the outrage at the absurd inconsistencies between advocating a set of principles on one hand, and then sabotaging them on the other?"
The answer is intimidation. And the threat of recrimination.
No EC subject matter expert contacted for this article would speak willingly. All are collared by a tight leash.
According to their university colleagues, they fear not only budget cuts, non-approval of essential equipment, travel restrictions, or blacklisting for promotion, but their employment itself.
Carleton University professor and veteran reporter Peter Calamai commented: "This desire for control leads to missed opportunities to tell fantastic science and technology stories."
Ottawa Citizen columnist Kelly Egan wrote: "What is evident -and most dangerous -is the brick wall that has been erected between the public service and the public via the media conduit."
How frequently, if ever, do we hear directly from the experts we fund? They publish 700 papers per year in scientific journals -almost two per day. Stephen Harper and EC Minister Jim Prentice must be truly proud of the department’s extraordinary success in muzzling its scientists.
But at what cost to the Canadian public’s right to know?
The Gazette unveiled a leaked EC memo boasting that requests for media interviews on climate change have plummeted 80 per cent since the policy was effected.
Harper, introducing the Federal Accountability Act in 2006, prioritized the need to "provide real protection for whistle blowers who show great courage in coming forward to do what is right."
Federal scientists ought to test Harper’s statement. All concerned Canadian scientists -recently retired, approaching retirement, or now working elsewhere and immune from recrimination – should consider speaking up.
They will undoubtedly receive widespread support in exposing the absence of transparency, openness, and accountability that this prime minister promised, but has so clearly failed to deliver.
Glen Blouin is a freelance journalist and author.