Silence of the labs

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Kai Benson explains why the federal government's attempt to muzzle its scientists hinders public knowledge and damages science discourse in Canada.

 

By Kai Benson, for the Ryerson Review of Journalism

Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick helped identify the largest ozone hole in the Arctic, and Postmedia reporter Mike De Souza has finally secured an interview in late October 2011, after almost three weeks of bureaucratic delays. Towards the end of the conversation, De Souza asks why the phone call took so long to set up. “Have you been extremely busy and not available to do interviews with the media?”

Suddenly, a woman’s voice cuts in, “Mike, it’s Renee here. David is here and available to speak to you now, so I think that’s kind of a moot point.” 

“I’m asking the question and if he wants to answer it, he can answer it,” says De Souza.

“I’m available when media relations says I’m available,” answers Tarasick. “I have to go through them.”

Before 2007, when government scientists could respond to media freely and independently, this story would have seemed preposterous. But over the past few years, journalists have been dealing with a different set of rules.

In November 2007, Environment Canada implemented new guidelines for its employees. The government rationale was “just as we have ‘one department, one website’ we should have ‘one department, one voice,’” the goal being to coordinate and consolidate the agency’s message. However, the new policy required practices such as getting media relations to respond or “asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines,” depriving scientists of their own voice on the subject.

This has been a trend throughout the Canadian government. The resulting interview delays and denials have had a significant effect on science journalism in Canada—an Environment Canada memo obtained by Climate Action Network Canada estimated the drop in access to government climate change scientists at 80 percent—prompting many journalists and scientists to speak out against the current government’s move towards opacity.

“What you’re looking at is the government trying to control the release of information,” says Stephen Strauss, president of the Canadian Science Writers Association. “If you’re looking for a bad return on your tax dollar, it’s hard to imagine a worse return than when you can’t find out what your own people have done.”

Science writers have reported delays lasting weeks, often with no interview granted or PR-scripted talking points sent to them via e-mail. In one memorable case in March 2012, Ottawa Citizen reporter Tom Spears submitted a freedom of information request to find out why, when he asked for an interview with a snowfall researcher, the National Research Council Canada (NRC) took an entire workday to send him seven sentences of information and an unrequested technical diagram. No interview whatsoever was given.

A month later, in reply to his freedom of information request, Spears received a 52-page document containing e-mails from numerous NRC media relations employees, debating what to say, why to say it and whether an interview was necessary. Bullet points were suggested, trimmed down, added to, sent to Spears and then disputed some more.

What nobody ever gave in this drawn-out nitpicking was a straight answer to Spears’ original request. He had simply asked to speak to someone about what the NRC’s involvement was in studying snowfall with NASA—which, by the way, responded quickly and had a scientist speak to Spears.

De Souza says he won’t comment on what he thinks of muzzling, but cites several examples of unusual actions taken by the government, such as inconsistencies in Environment Canada’s release of information—for example, putting out a press release when studies showed mercury levels in fish were not increasing, but keeping silent when similar research showed mercury levels in bird eggs were increasing. “Some studies are convenient and some are not, it would appear,” says De Souza.

Journalists and scientists are starting to make some noise in protest.

 

To continue reading Benson's feature on why restricting access to scientists hurts science journalism, head over to the RRJ's website

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