'Muzzling' scientists undermines democracy, Victoria law clinic says

The Information Commissioner of Canada has been asked to probe the Harper government’s efforts to prevent media and the public from obtaining information from federal scientists.

The investigation request to Suzanne Legault was made Wednesday by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and the non-profit Democracy Watch, which say policies designed to prevent scientists from speaking freely are undermining democracy.

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“There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists — information that their tax dollars have paid for,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the law clinic.

“We, as a society, cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

It is troubling that media cannot get information and the government is releasing only approved lines, often only to “friendly” reporters, Sandborn said.

“It doesn’t matter what your position is on climate change or oilsands or Enbridge, and it doesn’t matter if you are a political conservative or liberal or social democrat,” he said.

“I think all of us can agree that society is in deep trouble when scientific information belonging to the public is kept away from the public.”

A report by law student Clayton Greenwood, submitted with the request to Legault, details policies in agencies such as Environment Canada, where a media request is met by a “program expert” responding with “approved lines.”

At Natural Resources Canada, issues such as climate change and oilsands are flagged as needing ministerial approval before information is given, Greenwood’s report says.

Several ministries indicated that access would be given if the reporter was considered friendly, the report says.

“Where information may be used to cast a bad light upon the government or its policies, communications departments may withhold or delay the release of government information.”

The government has faced increasing criticism, both nationally and internationally, for its refusal to let scientists speak about their findings.

A recent change restricts government scientists collaborating with international colleagues from publishing research unless it matches government policy.

A storm of protest arose in 2011 after Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Kristi Miller was forbidden to speak to media about her research on the decline of sockeye salmon, which was published in the scientific journal Nature.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union representing federal scientists, said it was another example of how media and public access to federal scientists has become politicized.

The climate is very different in the U.S., where President Barack Obama has instructed federal agencies to develop scientific integrity policies, Greenwood’s report says.

Scientists with agencies such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are encouraged to speak freely about their work.

Legault, the information commissioner, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

 

>Editorial: Science must

not be muzzled, A10

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