Harper’s attack on scientists

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You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the Harper government's muzzling of scientists is both an assault on democracy and on the pursuit of pure knowledge.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/05/2015 (2757 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the Harper government’s muzzling of scientists is both an assault on democracy and on the pursuit of pure knowledge.

It’s behaviour typical of a government so desperate to control the message it threatened to fire a marine biologist who did an interview on sharks without first getting the required political approval. Now that’s dumb. And scary.

And it’s also why federal scientists gathered in Ottawa Tuesday to protest the gag orders and what they call “partisan interference in the development of public science.”

Sean Kilpatrick / THE CANADIAN PRESS Scientists rally in Ottawa.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents about 15,000 scientists and engineers, says intellectual freedom is more important to its members today than issues surrounding wages or benefits.

The scientists say they can’t do their jobs under the current reign of control and message management that treats even the most innocuous information, such as the life of ground squirrels, as privileged information that can’t be shared publicly without first enduring a battery of communications and political experts.

Provincial and federal governments in Canada over the last 50 years have been exercising greater control over information provided to the public — hence the proliferation of so-called communicators — but the trend has accelerated and intensified to the point of absurdity under the administration of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

There’s nothing terribly new about Mr. Harper’s silencing of the public service — even his own MPs are afraid to speak their minds on minor subjects without prior approval — but this is the first organized push-back by the civil service since the Conservatives were elected in 2006.

The work of federal scientists is critical to shaping public policy, from fresh-water pollution to the impact of carbon emissions. That’s just one reason why they should be free to pursue the evidence wherever it takes them, regardless of partisan politics.

Obviously, there is some scientific research, particularly studies related to defence and national security, that is not in the public interest to publish or disseminate.

However, there’s a critical difference between expecting scientists to be non-partisan, and demanding they keep critical research to themselves.

According to a study by Maclean’s magazine, for example, the government’s four leading climate scientists were quoted in the media just 12 times in the first nine months of 2008, compared to 99 times over the same period the year before.

The government’s gag on scientists from speaking about research they have published is also incomprehensible. The Maclean’s study quoted a geologist who was not allowed to discuss work he did for a journal on a flood in northern Canada — wait for it — 13,000 years ago.

The entire world could read about it, but only government-sanctioned communicators or some other apparatchik was authorized to explain it to the media and interested citizens.

Mr. Harper’s obsession with secrecy and control is partly related to his distrust of media, but it also exposes a real contempt for the political system.

The prime minister has cast such a chill across the civil service that information in general, regardless of its content, is regarded as a possible threat.

Canada’s information commissioner is investigating the complaints. It’s doubtful she will have any trouble diagnosing an anti-intellectual political culture that promotes secrecy over enlightenment.

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