Freedom of expression is a vital component of a healthy democracy; it’s also essential to science. Scientists and academics are concerned that the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying to increase its control of what government scientists can say and publish.
The latest controversy has arisen from changes in Fisheries and Oceans Canada rules. The changes state that scientists cannot publish research until the material has been reviewed by a DFO administrator “for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy.”
Kevin Stringer, a DFO assistant deputy minister, said minor changes have been made to publication procedures to eliminate peer-review duplication and to ensure government intellectual-property rights are respected.
He said requirements regarding publication of scientific articles are nothing new, and that the DFO recognizes the importance of publishing research.
But Jim Turk of the Canadian Association of University Teachers says the changes are evidence that the government wants control of scientists’ work and wants to suppress anything seen as against political objectives.
University of Victoria scientist Andrew Weaver says that putting research reviews into the hands of bureaucrats will inhibit collaboration with scientists in other countries. He said the situation is reminiscent of the Cold War era under the KGB in Russia.
Perhaps the scientists are paranoid. There’s nothing wrong with having procedures and policies governing the publication of research by government-employed scientists. But those regulations should be dictated by scientific principles and standards, not by political considerations. It’s chilling to think that publication of research might be evaluated on its effect on the political climate, rather than on the world’s climate.
We’re far removed from the times of the astronomer Galileo Galilei, who spent the rest of his life under house arrest after his theories put him at odds with the establishment. But we would be naïve to think a government, even one with good intentions, would not be tempted to manage scientific information for its own political ends.
Much of what scientists do is for the long-term good of humanity; government by its very nature is concerned about its near-term survival. That is why the scientific process should be kept at arm’s length from politics.
Science requires that research be published so other people can challenge, test or confirm the findings. Publication enables scientists to collaborate and corroborate, and to combine efforts into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Theories are presented, tested, revised and tested again. Knowledge is expanded, deepened.
Any inhibition on the free flow of information threatens this process and scientific integrity.
The perception of political interference can taint scientific work. If scientists in Canada are seen to be under the thumb of policy-obsessed bureaucrats, researchers in other countries could be reluctant to share their work with Canadian scientists.
If a government is seen to be imposing its political motives on research, the public trust of science is eroded. We look to scientists to explain the world around us, to warn us, to teach us. Here on Vancouver Island, we are keenly interested in the state of the oceans, the health of the fisheries, the possibility of earthquakes and the future of our forests. We do not want our scientific information passed through the filters of government policy.
Scientists, particularly those employed by the government, should work within reasonable and practical boundaries, but their work and the publication of their findings should not be constrained by political expediency.
© Copyright 2013