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Tory 'muzzling' of scientists blasted

Harper urged to 'tear down wall' between researchers and public

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VANCOUVER -- For almost three weeks after David Tarasick published findings about one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic, the federal scientist was barred from breathing a word about it to the media.

Kristi Miller was similarly gagged from granting interviews about her research into a virus that might be killing British Columbia's wild sockeye salmon, despite going to print in the prestigious journal Science.

Such incidents aren't one-off occurrences but represent a trend of "muzzling" Canadian scientists by federal agencies under the Conservative government, a panel told their international peers Friday at a global science conference in Vancouver.

"It's pretty clear that for federal scientists, Ottawa decides now if the researchers can talk, what they can talk about and when they can say it," senior science journalist Margaret Munro, with Postmedia News, told a group at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting.

The views were aired in tandem with the release of an open letter by a coalition of six science and communications organizations, jointly calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to "tear down the wall" that's been raised over the past four years separating scientists, journalists and the public.

It was signed by several groups, including the Canadian Science Writers Association, World Federation of Science Journalists, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union that represents 23,000 federal scientists.

"Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the 'consent' of media relations officers," the letter says.

It adds that far too frequently, journalists encounter "unacceptable" delays and denials for interviews.

"Increasingly, journalists have simply given up trying to access federal scientists, while scientists at work in federal departments are under undue pressure in an atmosphere dominated by political messaging."

The Prime Minister's Office referred questions Friday to the office of Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology.

In an email, spokesman Jay Jacobson said the government's communications policy is designed to ensure "interviews or technical information on specialized subjects are directed to knowledgeable managers or staff designated to speak as official representatives."

Munro, an award-winning reporter who has worked in the field more than 30 years, said news coverage of publicly funded science has plummeted in the years since the Conservatives took office.

"We used to have a very open system of government, where the scientists were actually free to discuss their research with the media," she said. "But it's now become a very closed system, with government taking media and message control to sometimes quite incredible extremes."

Among the first agencies whose guidelines restricting the flow of information was revealed was Environment Canada, in 2007. The protocol stipulated all media requests be streamed through agency headquarters and that staff use "approved lines" or the minister's office for replies, rather than the scientists themselves.

The government currently employs 4,459 information officers, media handlers and strategists to do such work, Munro said.

"The government, for the most part, won't really admit that there is a problem," she said. "They maintain there is timely, orderly access to scientists."

No official from Environment Canada, the Fisheries Department or Natural Resources was available to join the panel. An invitation to Goodyear was not answered.

Panellist Francesca Grifo, a director of the Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, has worked to improve the accountability of the U.S. government by pushing for broader transparency on the science it conducts. "This isn't about some abstract right that scientists get to chatter about," Grifo said. "This is about important information that has critical repercussions for our health, our safety, our environment, our world, our future, our children's future.

"And (it's about) the ability to get that information out there so that we, as citizens, can begin to evaluate and be a part of the decision-making process."

She suggested Canadian agencies take a page from one in the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA now encourages scientists to speak to the media without any intermediary and to express their own opinions so long as they indicate they aren't speaking on behalf of their employer.

A third panellist said many scientists are frustrated, but haven't spoken out with a collective voice for fear of being branded "radicals" and losing their funding.

Climate scientist Andrew Weaver, of the University of Victoria, said it's a shame good work is going unreported and suggested politicians frame the debate in a more positive way.

"It's not about suppressing somehow some message that's going to create some murky controversy; it's about suppressing the success of Canadian scientists," Weaver said.

-- The Canadian Press, with files from Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2012 A19

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