From: Issue 39
Environmental management, Harper style
Muzzled Scientists, Junked Science
In March, an Ottawa Citizen reporter named Tom Spears sent a routine request to the National Research Council (NRC). Spears had noticed a joint research project in which the NRC and NASA were studying that quintessential Canadian topic of snow – specifically, what causes it to fall in the quantities and densities it does – and he was hoping to interview a scientist working on the project to gather some more detail. It was a straightforward scientific slice of life story, revealing a little of the trench work carried out mostly without fanfare by the 23,000 scientists on the federal government’s payroll; the NRC’s own media officials characterized it as a “positive/informative” story.
With a single 15-minute phone call to NASA, Spears had learned all he needed about the American research team’s role in the project. His e-mail query to the NRC, however, would spend nearly a full day pinging from inbox to inbox, as NRC communications officers fretted over the wording of their background materials, “massaged” replies, and debated whether an interview was necessary. Eventually, the most senior communications bureaucrat in an 11-message e-mail chain decided it wasn’t.
The Citizen ran its story without comment from the NRC or anyone else in the Canadian government, making only passing mention of the NRC’s participation. The newspaper also filed an access-to-information request, eventually uncovering the byzantine bureaucratic communications chain through which a dozen NRC employees had spent six hours deciding not to grant an interview. When the Citizen posted the full document on its website, it quickly became the talk of Canada’s science journalism community, confirming what many of them had experienced firsthand: in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa, it had become nearly impossible to ask a government scientist a simple question.
In the halls of a government increasingly hostile to basic scientific research and the potential obstacles it might present to its resource-extracting energy-superpower agenda, the muzzling of scientific discourse had achieved an absurd apex. The government was unwilling to discuss what it knew about why snow fell. “This is the kind of process that occurs when you’ve turned information into something that has to go through a bureaucratic grind,” says Stephen Strauss, a veteran science journalist and president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. “You’ve heard about the satanic mills of the Dickensian era? Now we’ve seen the satanic mills of Stephen Harper’s information era.”
Until recently, journalists on the science beat enjoyed the same collegial relationship with government scientists as they did (and still do) with university researchers. Background detail or a colourful quote was rarely more than a quick phone call away. Since 2008, however, government scientists in every field have been obliged to pass on even the most mundane queries to their affiliated media departments, which almost always insist on seeing written questions before approving interviews (a break with many generations of standard journalistic practice) and rarely provide much more than background detail and bland, canned talking points.
On topics deemed sensitive or controversial, government media reps have sat in on interviews and even banned government scientists from talking to the press about their work. When Kristina Miller of the Pacific Biological Station published a groundbreaking report on collapsing salmon stocks in the prestigious international journal Science in early 2011, for example, her media minders killed a planned press release and refused numerous requests for interviews from major national and international media outlets. And at a recent International Polar Year science conference in Montreal, Environment Canada’s research contingent was accompanied by a phalanx of government media observers who monitored their colleagues’ presentations and obliged the scientists to refer any follow-up queries to their handlers.