Harper-controlled DFO is censoring federal scientists with research rules, critics say

Angry scientists and academics are accusing the Stephen Harper government of muzzling and censoring its scientists to the point that research cannot be published, even when there is collaboration with international researchers, unless it matches government policy.

Under revised Fisheries and Oceans Canada rules, scientists working in its central and Arctic region cannot be involved in publishing research until a DFO division administrator has reviewed it “for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy.”

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That amounts to censoring scientific findings, says Jim Turk, Canadian Association of University Teachers executive director.

“The federal government wants to control what scientists do and what they find and how it’s reported. They want to suppress findings that can be seen as being against their political objectives,” Turk said.

A letter written to Harper Thursday on behalf of the 68,000 CAUT members expresses “deep dismay and anger at your government’s attack on the independence, integrity and academic freedom of scientific researchers.”

The latest changes run contrary to the spirit of free scientific inquiry and smack of political censorship, the letter says.

It is part of a pattern that has seen the Harper government reduce media access to scientists and cut funding and programs, Turk said.

University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver said the changes put DFO research reviews into the hands of Ottawa bureaucrats instead of scientists.

“It means that international scientists will not want to collaborate with Canadian scientists,” he said. “This is reminiscent of the Cold War era, with the KGB in Russia … George Orwell would just be chuckling in his grave.”

Demands from DFO that foreign researchers sign restrictive agreements have upset Andreas Muenchow, a University of Delaware oceanographer who has collaborated with Canadian scientists on Arctic research.

In a blog posting Muenchow wrote: “I believe this is a disturbing political climate change … I feel that it threatens my academic freedom and potentially muzzles my ability to publish data.”

The policy is substantially different from the 2003 Canadian government agreement, he wrote.

Rick Kool, Royal Roads University associate professor in the school of environment and sustainability, said the clampdown illustrates the government’s control-the-message mindset.

“They are moving toward a managed democracy where people get to vote every few years and the winning party rules, not governs. When you see yourself as a ruler, you can ignore science and data,” he said.

“There’s a shackling of science when it doesn’t give convenient answers and doesn’t serve the political interest.”

Without knowing the science, especially in areas such as climate change, governments cannot come up with good policies, Kool said.

It is difficult for scientists to fight back, he said. “It would take a courageous scientist, working for the federal government, to break the rules and see if every other scientist across Canada would stand up for them.”

However, Kevin Stringer, DFO ecosystems and oceans science assistant deputy minister, said the aim of the “minor modifications to publication procedures” are to eliminate duplication of peer reviews and ensure government intellectual property rights are respected in third-party publications.

“Publishing and communicating scientific work is a crucial element of what we do,” he wrote in an email.

“The requirements for approval of the release of science articles are long-standing and take place within the science sector. And our record is solid.”

DFO issues more than 300 research publications annually, plus publications by scientists in books and journals, Stringer said.

“Scientists take the issue of scientific integrity seriously and so does Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Our policies and procedures are designed to support this,” he said.

Researchers believe the policy is starting in the Arctic, where there are issues such as climate change and sea ice, but will soon be adopted Canada-wide.

“I think they thought they would test run it before putting it into the politically hot waters on either coast,” said a scientist who cannot be named as he has not received DFO permission to speak.


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