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.”

 

NOTE: The comments below do not necessarily reflect the views of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association

 

13 Responses to An open letter to the leaders of Canada’s federal political parties

  1. Sharon says:

    The muzzling of independent scientists is leading to grave harm in many areas. One is the proliferation of wireless communication devices. Most non-industry funded research for the last 4 decades has shown that non-ionizing radiation like that emitted from cell phones and transmitters, FM transmitters, and WiFi is capable of causing severe effects such as DNA damage, blood brain barrier leadage and excitation of cells leading to cancer. But Health Canada refuses to acknowledge this evidence, preferring to publish industry-funded research which,of course, says there is no evidence of harm. The exposure guideline, Safety Code 6, remains unchanged, being one of laxest in the developed world, while allowing/encouraging more transmitters to be put on homes, near schools and hospitals,forcing radiation emitting smart meters on unsuspecting public and telling school boards that having children exposed to WiFi in schools all day every day is just fine. Discussion is stifled, municipalities are not allowed to argue these delopments based on health! And without money to fight the issue in courts, the honest science remains muzzled. Shameful.

    • Desertphile says:

      No: there is no valid evidence that even remotely suggests RF harms human life or any other. Cell phones and WiFi are not shown to be in any way harmful.

      It isn’t a conspiracy: it’s your ignorance.

  2. Una St.Clair says:

    The silencing of independent investigative journalism is a cricital element as our country slides so surely away from true democracy and into the promotion of fascism. Journalists know what is going on – look at the four scientists who testified at the Parliamentary HESA hearings on health impacts to humans from microwave radiation used in cellular telecommunications. All of those scientists have been targetted, funding removed, restricted access to science labs, discredited and more. This is a big story regarding manipulation of truth for the benefit of industry. Asbestos & tobacco hurt thousands – wireless technology will hurt millions. Canada is not the land of the free, it is the land of manipulation and deceit where industry rules through government and the people are only clients.

  3. CSWA board says:

    While we believe that the above commenters have the right to their opinions, in the interest of fairness and scientific objectivity the CSWA board must point out that large numbers of groups have looked—and continue to look—at the question of whether long-term exposure to radio-frequency fields can cause health problems.

    While some of these groups receive funding from industry sources in many instances absolute barriers between the funders and the scientists who conduct or evaluate the research have been established. See for example http://www.iarc.fr/en/research-groups/RAD/RCAd.html and http://www.RFcom.ca. The result is that unlike the cases of known carcinogens such as tobacco smoke and asbestos, to date there is not only no consensus that cell phones and transmitters cause cancer but considerable evidence that they don’t. See, for a summary of where we stand, studies listed at the University of Ottawa’s McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment, Institute for Population Health, RFcom.ca’s website http://www.rfcom.ca/panel/index.shtml.

    This does not mean such a connection has been absolutely ruled out but rather that we do not see any systemic attempt to muzzle the free flow of scientific information regarding the health effects of cell phones in the same way as what we outlined in our letter to the party leaders.

    Experts can disagree but if government scientists can’t even talk to journalists about what they found the Canadian public won’t be able to distinguish normal disagreement from systemic stifling and gagging.

    • Sharon says:

      I don’t understand your comment about funding barriers between funders and scientists. Remember Repacholi? He was on the EMR project for WHO and was outed as having rec’d a large amount of money from industry, and refused to consider peer-reviewed studies showing harm.

      And the McLaughlin Centre. Dan Krewski’s centre has rec’d funding from the industry for the last decade. That may be one reason why Dr. Krewski changed his opinion about the dangers of radiation between 1999 and 2003. In 1999 in the Royal Panel report he reported DNA damage and blood brain barrier leakage from exposure to ERM. Now he says there is no evidence. Isn’t that strange?

      This undermines your entire point — the telecommunications industry has infiltrated every aspect of the debate, just as did the tobacco industry. I am amazed you don’t know. You should.

      There most certainly is a serious attempt to muzzle scientists who brave the wrath of the telecommunication industry. Ask Henry Lai, Olle Johansson, Dimitri Panagopoulos to name just 3. This industry is so powerful that is has threatened funding loss at universities, and ruined reputations. This is what happened when credible scientists from around the world dared to speak to the Health Parliamentary sub-committee about the inadequacy of the radiation guideline and presented peer-reviewed, replicated studies. Sure, I guess they could have spoken to the journalists, but then what would have happened?

      I think you are unaware of the pressure these scientists are under, just as you are unaware of the thousands of studies showing how our bodies are responding to this electrosmog. Why are you unaware? Because the scientists are afraid to speak out for fear of the ramifications. They are being muzzled. Please check further.

  4. Hannah Hoag says:

    Paul Raeburn at Knight Science Journalism Tracker has picked up the story. Check out the Comments where CBC’s Quirks & Quark’s Jim Handman recounts his attempt to speak with a scientist from Natural Resources Canada about his recent paper on receding Arctic coastlines.

  5. [...] is only one example of many where federal government scientists have been prevented from speaking to the press. So it is no wonder that this week, when Environment Canada scientist [...]

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