Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Complaint alleges scientists muzzled

Information commissioner to investigate

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OTTAWA -- Federal policies that restrict what government scientists can say publicly about their work are about to be put under the microscope.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has agreed to investigate how government communications rules on taxpayer-funded science impact public access to information.

Legault is responding to a complaint lodged by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and the ethics advocacy group Democracy Watch.

Their lengthy report -- Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy? -- laid out repeated examples of taxpayer-funded science being suppressed or limited to prepackaged media lines across six different government departments and agencies.

In a letter to the complainants, the commissioner's office noted she is required under the Access to Information Act to investigate any matter related to obtaining or requesting records.

The complaint alleges that by keeping government scientists from speaking out about their work, the public is denied the chance to request records -- because no one is ever made aware they exist in the first place.

The complaint "alleges that the right of access to information under the act is impeded by government policies, practices or guidelines that restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with the media and the Canadian public," Legault's office responded.

In addition to four government departments and two agencies cited in the complaint, Legault said she will examine the Treasury Board Secretariat "because of its role in relation to the development and implementation of government policies."

Chris Tollefson, the executive director of UVic's law centre, said their research into suppressed science revealed both the wide scope of the practice and that it "represents a significant departure" in government practice over the last five to seven years.

Gary Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, was not available Monday. His office provided an email stating government scientists "are readily available to share their research with the media and the public."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2013 A8

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