Remove the muzzle from government scientists
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Politicians are twisting and hiding science that reveals flaws in their policies.
Sep 20 2013. By: David Schindler
Most scientists are by nature introverts, happiest in the field or the laboratory, willing to talk about their work if asked but not inclined to be self-promoters. But on Monday, they demonstrated in public in several Canadian cities to protest the muzzling of government scientists and the de-emphasis of government environmental science.
That scientists would take the time and effort to demonstrate publicly should be deeply disturbing to Canadians. It indicates some dramatic and important changes in the purpose of government science departments.
In the 1960s and 1970s, government scientists were encouraged to speak publicly about their work. The resulting science-based policies were the envy of scientists and policy-makers around the world. Canada was the first country to regulate phosphorus in sewage and detergents, leading to the recovery of many lakes from algal blooms. Much of the science behind that decision was done by government scientists. It was welcomed by policy-makers eager to anchor their policies in solid science. Canada also led global efforts to decrease emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals, resulting in the Montreal Protocol.
A decade later, the transparency in government science began showing the first signs of weakening. Scientists were no longer encouraged to speak publicly on their work, but they were not prevented from doing so. They were warned to avoid directly criticizing government policies, even environmentally harmful ones. Rebukes were mild for a scientist who challenged his political masters. At worst, a scolding letter was “put on your file.”
Such tightening of public communication was one reason I left government science for academia. In ensuing years, control over science and scientists has been slowly tightened by politicians and bureaucrats under both Conservative and Liberal governments, who feared that science would challenge their ideology and their policies.
Even so, there were successes, such as policies to control acid rain, based largely on science from government departments. But there were also failures, as bureaucrats and politicians ignored science and silenced government scientists to make weak policies that collapsed the cod fisheryand compromised the salmon runs of the Nechako River. Despite repeated budget cuts, government science staggered on, doing sometimes remarkable work, using clever liaisons with scientists in universities and other countries to make important work publicly known. During this period, I gave many lectures warning that government science was on a dangerous path. No one seemed to notice.
It remained for the Harper Government to deliver the coup de grâce to government science. Shortly after it took office, scientists were told they must have permission from bureaucrats to speak publicly. Bureaucrats and communications officers issued “speaking lines” that must be used to avoid criticism of policies. The permitted lines were often so inane that most scientists chose to remain silent rather be embarrassed by using them.
Often, obtaining permission took so long that the opportunity to speak had passed. On issues of particular international sensitivity such as greenhouse gases, scientists were accompanied to public meetings by communications “handlers” to ensure that they did not utter any words that would embarrass policy-makers. Scientists were advised to avoid the media if possible, using tactics copied from training in bear avoidance “walk slowly away, maintaining eye contact.” Similar tactics were used by the Soviet Union to suppress scientific communication during the Cold War, when KGB agents shadowed scientists participating in international meetings.
Other actions were taken to ensure there would be less pesky science done by government departments to challenge the Conservatives’ pro-development agenda. The government divested itself of the Experimental Lakes Project, government contaminants programs, climate projects and the Arctic PEARL project. The Fisheries Act and the Navigable Waters Act were changed to provide less protection, while expediting large industrial developments.
The Canadian public is beginning to see the problem, as scientifically misleading and downright fallacious statements are made by ministers on issues from greenhouse gas emissions to oilsands and protection of fisheries. Most people are aware that a functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate. Most also know that we, the taxpayers, pay the bills for government science and endure the consequences of the environmental policies, whether they are grounded in good science or not. We deserve to know what we are paying for.
We must take government science back from politicians who would twist or hide science that reveals flaws in their policies. We deserve to know the truth about the impacts of proposed developments on our environment, in order to avoid mistakes that will be costly to future generations.
Government science once provided this information, and it must be changed to do so again. The health of not only our environment, but of Canadian democracy, depends on it.
David Schindler is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology emeritus at the University of Alberta. His 50-year scientific career has included 22 years as a federal government scientist.
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