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Silencing Science

Posted on February 17, 2012
Written by Kerry Freek

Canada is home to extremely bright minds doing excellent, groundbreaking scientific work in water. Back in September, Bob Sandford praised Canada’s federal scientists in his blog post about threats of budget cuts to Environment Canada. Despite huge cuts to the department in the 1990s, he wrote, Environment Canada researchers still managed to produce two of the most influential assessments of the threats to our country’s water quality and availability to appear to date in this century.

In my work with Water Canada, I frequently have the pleasure of meeting some of our country’s extraordinary talent pool at conferences and events. When engaged in conversation which is assuredly “off the record,” these experts are more often than not willing and excited to talk about their fascinating projects. Their enthusiasm is infectious; I want to share it with Water Canada’s readers.

But the mere mention of publication can sometimes put an abrupt end our conversation. If we want to continue “on the record,” I (and every other journalist in Canada) must go through a complicated system of internal levers and pulleys in order to extract an official statement. It’s a frustrating process, and, in it, we lose the spirit of the initial discussion. Very often, what emerges is a statement with cleansed language deemed appropriate for a “general public” audience. It’s not cutting-edge. It lacks personality. It is, in fact, kind of boring.

Yesterday, Le Devoir and iPolitics.ca published an open letter to the Prime Minister requesting that rules for how federal scientists can communicate be revised. Earlier today in Vancouver, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) held a session on “unmuzzling” government scientists (see the webcast here) at its annual conference.

“As a radio program that is committed to informing Canadians about the latest developments in Canadian science, we are disappointed and frustrated by the restrictions that prevent us from getting timely access to federal government scientists,” said Jim Handman, executive producer of CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, in response to the topic.

“Scientists must be free to discuss their own work, and to comment on their own areas of expertise–free from censorship, manipulation, or fear of retribution. We hope the Canadian government will lift its restrictions on government scientists, and allow all Canadians to benefit from learning about their publicly-funded research.

In the interest of sharing scientific enthusiasm and breakthroughs with Water Canada’s readers, I am in full support of the movement to remove the muzzle and allow our country’s brilliant scientists to communicate with the press. There must be a better balance to control the flow of information without placing such strict limitations on the people who work daily to keep our water safe and healthy.

One Response to “Silencing Science”

  1. Avi Lambert says:

    Great post Kerry!

    Your discussion of the muzzling of scientific information, and communication more generally, prompts me to raise the idea that information is tied intrinsically to politics and economics. I point this as I find that the muzzling of scientific information under a conservative majority is not so surprising.

    In articles such as this one (http://www.hilltimes.com/news/2011/11/21/pm-harper-takes-communications-strategy-to-new-level/28868) one can connect the dots among issues, to find there is a common tenor in how communications issues are managed by the current Harper majority.

    I agree also that we must do our best to remove the muzzle.

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