VANCOUVER—As thousands of researchers gather in Vancouver for an international conference, focus has turned to the Canadian government and concerns that federal scientists are being muzzled from talking about their work.
A panel discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting heard that federal scientists — including those at Environment Canada, the Canadian Food and Inspection Agency and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — are doing top-line research that’s being published in some of the most prestigious journals. But the Canadian public isn’t aware of this work because scientists have been told not to talk without getting clearance through layers of bureaucracy in Ottawa.
“Scientists are first and foremost a public servant, not a servant for the ministry,” said Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria.
Weaver said he gets frequent emails from public-sector colleagues looking to leave the federal government. “When you control people, morale is bad.”
A policy change in 2008 said federal scientists must direct all media inquiries to national headquarters and not respond to requests to talk about their work.
Claire Dansereau, the deputy minister of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was listed as a participant in the panel discussion. But Dansereau did not appear and a chair was left symbolically empty at the table. Department spokeswoman Mélanie Carkner said that organizers knew on Jan. 6 that the deputy minister “would have to respectfully decline the invitation to participate.”
Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program with the New York-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said scientists must be allowed to speak about their work so that the public can stay informed about research being done to safeguard water, protect the environment and ensure pharmaceuticals are regulated.
“We can’t manage without information,” she said Friday.
Last year, Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who had her research published in Science, was told not to talk to the media.
On Friday, seven groups including the World Federation of Science Journalists and the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper citing another example of an Environment Canada scientist being prevented from talking about his ozone layer research.
“Clearly Canadians have the right to learn more about the science they support and to have unfettered access to the expertise of publicly funded scientist,” said the letter.
Faced with staffing cuts, the 23,000 federal scientists are operating in a culture of fear, said Johanne Fillion, a spokeswoman with the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada.