Scientists must be free to speak out

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The Ottawa Citizen – March 19, 2010

Re: Climate-change scientists feel 'muzzled': documents, March 15

This article reveals the silencing of federal government scientists, an important but chronic problem that must be fixed.

As a former public servant, I have experienced first-hand the attempts by federal bureaucrats to silence their senior scientists on matters that they believe might cast federal ministers or official government positions in an unfavorable light. Such muzzling occurred under Conservative and Liberal administrations, at least as far back as the Mulroney government.

Political muzzling of scientists is largely responsible for the demise of the cod fishery, and has played an important part in the decline of salmon stocks in western rivers. It has weakened policies for control of environmental problems ranging from environmental contaminants to endangered species.

It is one of the reasons why I, and many other scientists, left the federal government for universities, where we can speak publicly about our scientific findings without penalties.

I continue to collaborate closely with fellow scientists in several federal departments, including Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada, and occasionally others. My colleagues in these departments have reported increased restrictions on them in the past two years, similar to those described in the news story.

It is clear that muzzling under the Harper government is the most oppressive in the history of federal government science. Incredibly, some of the most eminent scientists in Canada have been forbidden to speak publicly on scientific matters where they are recognized as world experts, ranging from climate change to pollution of lakes and rivers. Instead, the public is referred to media-savvy spin doctors, who usually know very little about the science of these topics, spouting the party line.

This is not a trivial matter. The taxpayers pay the salaries and research expenses of federal scientists, and it is we who should benefit directly from the knowledge that they produce, not politicians and spin doctors who wish to shape our minds and federal policies in a science vacuum. Only a well-informed electorate can make decisions that are well grounded in both science and the needs of a democratic society.

We must demand the immediate repeal of political muzzling policies that prevent government scientists from communicating directly with Canadian citizens or the media on matters of national and international importance.

D. W. Schindler, Edmonton
Killam memorial chair and Professor of ecology,
University of Alberta

(Original comment no longer available on Ottawa Citizen website)