Smothering Science

Mmph mmph!
Across the country, scientists are kept from communicating with the media about their research.

“Everything here is important to me. This is my life.”

This was the answer that Dr. Patricia Sutherland, a federal archaeologist working on a site in Baffin Island, gave to her employer after being asked if there was anything important that she needed to get from her office. Sutherland had just been dismissed from the government project that she had been working on for many years. The reason for her abrupt dismissal? She had spoken to the media about her research without her employer’s approval — research which includes data proving that the earliest recorded contacts between Aboriginals and Norse explorers  occurred roughly 1,000 years ago.

The Canadian government’s attempt to maintain arctic sovereignty by promoting 19th century British naval expeditions proved to be at odds with Dr. Sutherland’s
project. Her findings also proved contradictory to the revamping of the museum where she worked, which was rebranded as the Canadian Museum of History, with a decreased focus on new research. She has since been denied access to her work by the museum.

Dr. Sutherland is only one of over 2,000 scientists and researchers who have been dismissed from their government jobs over the past three years after sharing their research with the media in spite of government policies.

These dismissals are the result of the enforcement of a country-wide gag order that prohibits federal scientists and researchers from talking to the media. Under our government’s system, journalists requesting interviews from federal experts are re-directed to federal government communications workers in the information services sector.  Their requests are then passed on to the government director of the relevant ministry, under which the researchers and scientists in question work.

“Canadians are being made more ignorant about our country and ourselves.”

Other processes used to limit the dissemination of information include having federal employees read off of a script during interviews or responding to a list of questions pre-approved by a communications worker, sometimes requiring that a communications worker sit in on the interview. This gag order policy effectively keeps scientists and researchers from providing information to the public, and as a result, has significantly harmed the average Canadian’s understanding of scientific research and advancements.

Two weeks ago, Karen Magnuson-Ford, a research assistant in SFU’s Department of Biological Sciences, released an analytical report on the issue of government muzzling of scientists and researchers. The report was published by Evidence For Democracy, a non-profit group promoting evidence-based public policies.

Dr. Magnuson-Ford said that she was driven to pursue the issue after hearing stories from some of her SFU colleagues who had been prevented by the government from talking to the media about their work. She felt that a formal assessment, made fully accessible to the public, was necessary to help solve this problem.

This report analyzed and graded media policies from 16 federal departments, based on how well they promote openness and timeliness of communication, how much protection they offer scientists from government interference, how well they protect scientists’ rights to free speech, and how much protection they offer.

Its conclusions were sad but predictable; the report found that government media policies did not support open and timely communication between scientists and the media, that they do not protect scientists’ rights to free speech and whistleblowing, nor do they protect them from political interference. In fact, 14 of the 16 departments assessed received a ‘C’ grade or lower, with five departments given a failing grade.

Dr. Magnuson-Ford explained that the public needs to be made aware of the consequences of government muzzling of scientists.
“Scientists are the ones on the ground doing the work in health and environment,” she says. “They need to get information to the public through the media without political interference.”

The work of scientists and researchers is crucial to our understanding of our world. They provide information on important issues, such as drug safety and climate change, and taxpayers have a right to know how the government is using science in its decision making. Furthermore, the government must be held accountable if their decisions are at odds with science.

Margrit Eichler, president of the collective Scientists For the Right to Know, argued in The Toronto Star, “Canadians are being made more ignorant about our country and ourselves. Good policies must be based on solid evidence. Democracy requires an informed electorate.”

Recently, several scientific reports — long kept under wraps by government constraints — have come out, showing just how valuable much of this research is to the public. Fifteen years of Dr. Peter Ross’ toxicology research on marine mammals in Canada’s north — specifically his discovery of the high levels of toxicity in fish that the Inuit were eating — had been buried for many years, much like Dr. David Schneider’s work on the pollution of the Athabasca watersheds in Northern Alberta, caused by the oil sands.

Though the government has created a huge problem by restraining communication between scientists and the media, Dr. Magnuson-Ford is confident that there are solutions. She explained that the federal departments need to work together, promoting policies which allow scientists more freedom to discuss their work. “Different policies had different strengths and weaknesses,” she says, based on the wide range of grades given to these departments in the report.

Next, she suggests looking towards the United States as a model of how to build a better relationship between the media and scientists. US departments regularly score much higher on scientist-media transparency than Canadian departments, due to improvements in policies made during the past few years.

Dr. Magnuson-Ford also asserts that the public can be part of the solution by sending messages to MPs, informing them that this is an issue that must be addressed. She suggests signing a petition on the Evidence for Democracy website, which sends a letter to government representatives in support of scientists.

“Scientists are the best spokespeople for their own work,” Dr. Magnuson-Ford told The Globe and Mail. “Barring rare instances where information is highly sensitive, it is essential that they be able to communicate their expertise to the media and the public.”