Science Writers Call For An End To Muzzling of Scientists By Canadian Government

The following is an open letter to the leaders of all the federal parties from the Canadian Science Writer’s Association expressing concern about the Harper Government’s policy of hampering information flow from taxpayer-funded scientists to the public and the media. In the past, the media would have unrestricted access to researchers working in government agencies. This is VERY disturbing to me, and most Canadians who are aware of it. It begs the question – is this Canada or North Korea?

Dear Misters Harper, Ignatieff, Layton, and Duceppe, and Ms May:

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) represents science journalists, communicators, publicists and authors—500 and growing. For almost a year now, the CSWA has pushed for changes in the government’s current communication policy to enable timely access to government scientists who have published studies and research in journals. We have documented numerous examples of instances where Canadian journalists have been denied access to government scientists doing research in areas of public interest. The problem is relatively new in Canada, although not unknown. It became critical with new rules and regulations instituted by the Harper government. The CSWA has attempted to work with high-level, senior public servants, those who act as champions of science, to restore journalists’ access to science experts in the federal government. We are frustrated by our lack of progress.

Every year, several billion dollars of tax-payers’ money is invested in made-in-Canada research—from genetically altered life forms, to promising forms of clean energy. We assert that the taxpaying Canadian public has a right to know about the science they pay for and what it can tell us about our health, safety, and the world in which we live. The findings and benefits of scientific and medical research should be available to all Canadians to enable engaged public policy awareness, debate and development.

All political parties repeatedly make promises to promote government openness and accountability. It is in this spirit that we ask you, our party leaders, to tell us and the public how you would guarantee freer channels of communication.

We want to know because the current Harper government’s restricted access to information impedes the public’s right to know about the research and studies it funds. We know that many reporters no longer try to get interviews from government experts because requests for interviews are so often stymied, there is an excessively long turn-around time on getting questions answered, and the now typical boilerplate responses are unsatisfactory. This means federal scientists who do the work miss out on the opportunity of getting some public feedback and the public doesn’t learn of the research being done in Canada.

Media requests that used to be handled by government researchers and communication staff across Canada now require an elaborate process of screening and approval in Ottawa that has been described publicly by one scientist as “Orwellian.”

By the time the “media lines” are approved—at considerable expense to taxpayers whose dollars are used to pay for these extra layers of message approval—the journalist’s deadline has usually long passed and the “lines” are never used.

Is communication staff now more compelled to block access to scientists and information than facilitate communication? As a 2010 document by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) put it, in response to an access to information request, the bureaucracy is now working to create a “zero surprise environment” for the Harper government.

The work of federal scientists is important, and it is often described as science done in the public good. These men and women monitor ozone depletion and air pollution. They work to ensure that drugs and medical supplies are safe. They assess which forms of Canadian energy are most promising, and which are most polluting.

We urge you to free the scientists to speak—be it about state of ice in the Arctic, dangers in the food supply, nanotechnology, salmon viruses, radiation monitoring, or how much the climate will change. Take off the muzzles and eliminate the script writers and allow scientists—they do have PhDs after all— to speak for themselves.

Let the federal scientists inform and enliven understanding. They are public servants, doing science for the Canadian public.

Sincerely, on behalf of the CSWA Board of Directors,

Kathryn O’Hara, President
Canadian Science Writers’ Association
sciencewriterscanada@gmail.com
 

Among recent examples of restricted access:

  • In January, 2011 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) muzzled B.C.-based scientist Kristina Miller. Her research, suggesting viral infections may be compromising the health of salmon, was published in the journal Science on January 14. According to a media advisory sent by Science’s media office to hundreds of journalists around the world, Miller was available for interviews that could be arranged by DFO media officer Diane Lake. Journalists from such outlets as Time magazine and the Globe and Mail requested interviews with Miller. But in the end, DFO granted no interviews with Miller. When pressed for an explanation, DFO came up with the rather flimsy excuse that there might be a possible conflict of interest because Miller was to testify at the Cohen Commission into the collapse of salmon stocks in the Fraser River. Meanwhile, Miller’s co-author on the Science report, Scott Hinch at the University of British Columbia, had no problem being interviewed by journalists even though he too was to testify at the Cohen Commission.

A subsequent article in the Globe and Mail by journalist Mark Hume (March 27/2011) reported on the silencing of Miller, inspiring retired DFO scientist Alan Sinclair to write to Hume: “Your recent article reporting that DFO put a gag order on Dr. Kristi Miller’s research on disease in sockeye salmon is very disturbing. Unfortunately, this sort of thing is all too common in DFO and other Federal Ministries with large science components. I encourage you to follow up on this and make Canadians more aware of what’s going on.” But as Hume reported, “following up while Dr. Miller is kept away from the press won’t be easy. She isn’t due to testify before the Cohen Commission for several months. Until then, Canadians can only wonder what she discovered—and why she was silenced.”

  • February 17, 2011, the British journal Nature published a cover story on the human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes by Seung-Ki Min, Xuebin Zhang, Francis W. Zwiers & Gabriele C. Hegerl. Though the lead author was Environment Canada (EC) researcher Min, it was Zwiers, formerly of Environment Canada and now at the University of Victoria, who participated in a telebriefing for journalists organized by Nature and did the bulk of the media interviews on this subject.
  • On April 5, 2011, the American Geophysical Union sent out an email alerting science journalists to newsworthy papers published in Geophysical Research Letters. Topping the list was a study by an Environment Canada team that concludes “dangerous” 2 degrees Celsius warming in the global temperature may be unavoidable by 2100. The study warned that “it is unlikely that warming can be limited to the 2 C target agreed to in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord” since immediate reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions are required. Several of the co-authors were in their offices and available to give interviews, but they told reporters that requests for interviews had to go through Environment Canada’s media office in Ottawa. Interviews were not granted. The story—minus any expert comment from EC—appeared in The Vancouver Sun.

Four of our members—who are among Canada’s most highly regarded science journalists—shared their personal experiences with our board and these are detailed below.

Margaret Munro, Postmedia science reporter, encountered difficulties when reporting on the U.N.’s supersensitive radiation monitors used to track emissions from the crippled Japanese nuclear plant. Four of the detectors are run by Health Canada (HC). Despite repeated requests, HC would not facilitate an interview with one of their radiation experts responsible for the Canadian detectors. “Meantime an Austrian team released data from the global network, including the stations in Canada,” she reports. The resulting stories can be found here and here.

Tom Spears, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen and science blogger, recounts his experiences in an April 8 email: Last June, Natural Resources Canada refused to take any calls from reporters for close to five hours following the earthquake in Ottawa. It told its communications people they could confirm there had been an earthquake, but they were to say nothing else until the top brass got its message together.

“Sadly, the government now avoids telephone contact. You call in, you get a call centre. They ask ‘What’s the deadline?’ They ask for an email address, and always, always reply by email, so you can’t say things like “Why?” or “What does that mean?”

The Globe and Mail’s Andre Picard recounts similar experiences, for instance: “For a post-mortem story on H1N1, we asked how many people were vaccinated by province and territory. We were told that information couldn’t be released, that we had to get it from each individual province and territory. It was a federal program—the vaccine was paid for by Ottawa and distributed by Ottawa. And it’s a secret who actually received it?”

Veteran science writer Stephen Strauss echoes the frustration: “What we end up with is hoping that some scientist in the U.S. or Europe also worked on the project so we can ask them questions about what Canadian tax money spent on the research has accomplished. The result is sort of like Canadians trying to follow the Canadian election by only reading The New York Times or Le Monde.”

More links:

An Open Letter To the Leaders of Canada’s Political Parties

Who’s Muzzling Canadian Scientists?

Public Science.ca

“Russia’s Problem Is Our Problem” As Drought and Fires Devastate Country

Tyler Hamilton’s column in The Star yesterday made the point that Russia’s current struggles with fire and drought could well become our problem in the future, if moves are not made to address the rapid climate changes that are occurring from our warming of the atmosphere. He posits this scenario:

Dozens of cottages have been destroyed and smoke from the affected regions has engulfed Toronto. Premier Dalton McGuinty declared a state of emergency and warned residents to stay indoors.

Meanwhile, low water levels and unprecedented power demand from air conditioning have forced rolling electricity brownouts across the province, with Ontario’s coal fleet – scheduled for complete shutdown by 2014 – operating at full capacity and making the pollution much worse.

Ontario is in no way alone. Heat and drought have devastated this year’s prairie wheat harvest, causing market prices to double on fears there will be a global wheat shortage.

Go to The Star.com to read all of  “Russia’s climate problem is our problem“.

In an follow-up to this article on Clean Break, Hamilton said that he received an email from a frustrated Environment Canada scientist with regard to the data that his department has available on the rising temperatures. The email mentioned the current muzzling of climate scientists and  said:

“government scientists were very unhappy” that this science, funded by Canadian taxpayers, was not being made known and easily accessible to the general public.”And yes, I fear reprisals if my name is attached to anything,” he wrote.

One of the links provided by the scientist shows that the Canadian national average temperature for the spring of 2010 was 4.1°C above normal, based on preliminary data, which makes this the WARMEST SPRING ON RECORD since nationwide records began in 1948. The previous record was in 1998 which was 3.2°C above normal. THIS IS THE SECOND SEASON IN A ROW TO SET A RECORD FOR ABOVE NORMAL TEMPERATURES.

I’m posting the graph full size here, because in the past links to Environment Canada information on our changing climate have been changed or deleted when I revisit the site.

The second link shows graphically how temperatures are expected to rise between now and 2100 in Canada and throughout the rest of North America.

As Hamilton states,

This data, against the backdrop of the Russia heat wave and Pakistan flooding, should be front-page news.

Why isn’t it?

From the NASA Earth Observatory, satellite pictures of the fires and smoke in Russia from August 4:

This could very well be in our future, if our leaders don’t start to lead on this issue.

Go to 350.org for ideas and inspiration on what you can do to encourage them, or check out my action not apathy page. We’re all in this together – remember that you will have to look your children and grandchildren in the eyes in 20 years when they ask you what YOU did about the climate crisis while there was still time.

Warmest, Driest Canadian Winter on Record is “Beyond Shocking”

The winter of 2009/2010 was the warmest, dryest one on the record books.  The national average temperature for this past winter was 4 degrees above normal, with some parts of Nunavut and Quebec more than 6 degrees above normal.  David Phillips, a senior Environment Canada climatologist, was recently quoted, saying:

It’s beyond shocking…”  Records have been shattered from “coast to coast to coast…It is truly a remarkable situation,” says Phillips, noting that he’s seen nothing like it in his 40 years of weather watching.

Phillips warned that “the winter than wasn’t” may have set the stage for potentially “horrific” water shortages, insect infestations and wildfires this summer.

Environment Canada’s report on this winter says the long-term record shows Canada’s climate has changed, most markedly in the winter, which has warmed 2.5 C over the last 63 years. The summary states:

The temperature trend graph shows that winter temperatures have remained at or above normal since 1997. The red dashed line indicates winter temperatures have warmed over the last 63 years by 2.5°C. The winter season shows the greatest warming of any season, but all seasons have shown a warming trend since 1948.

Meanwhile, the shortage of essential supplies like gasoline and building materials in northern remote communities due to the early melting of winter roads is making headlines.  Instead of lasting 3 months, as used to be the norm, this winter the ice roads in northern Manitoba were open for only 6 weeks. The cost of flying in supplies is prohibitive, and needs to be added to the growing list of climate change-related expenses that Canadians are going to be paying for, thanks to our government’s inaction on climate change.  As Dr. Richard Gemmon has said “If you think mitigated climate change is expensive, try unmitigated.”

Meanwhile, on CBC’s “The National” last night, the balmy temperatures were discussed without one mention of climate change – now that is really shocking!

Here’s a clip of David Suzuki, Canadian scientist and environmentalist extraordinaire, discussing the media’s coverage of climate change.  Unfortunately, it is just as accurate today as it was when this video was made in 2006:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NefFxNPmVi8&hl=en_US&fs=1&]