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Federal Government Muzzles DFO Scientists with New Policy

This is a post by Michael Harris, originally published on iPolitics.

“Everything has a crack in it; that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen, take a bow.

Another crack has appeared in the Harper government’s surreptitious but merciless war to muzzle Canadian scientists — and just about everyone else.

The light entering through this particular crack shines on a disturbing fact. Canada, the only parliamentary democracy in the Commonwealth where a government has been found in contempt of Parliament, is now the only democracy in the world where a government bureaucrat can suppress scientific research.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, where a reign of terror aimed at choking off internal leaks has been in full swing since the disastrous decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), has issued a new policy on the publication of scientific papers.

Although there has always been a departmental policy on the publication of scholarly research, the 2013 version of the rules features some crucial differences.

Previous policies applied only to those papers prepared by DFO scientists. If government scientists teamed up with non-DFO scientists on a paper, it was merely “recommended” that DFO scientists adhere to the departmental publication policy.

The new policy applies to all submissions and DFO approval is required. Just to make sure scientists get the message, that part of the revised guidelines is printed in bold italics. Making things worse, the new policy does not lay out the criteria for giving thumbs-down to a publication.

How will it work? In a word, not the way it used to and not to the country’s benefit — assuming that intellectual freedom remains a core requirement of good science. In previous versions of DFO’s publication policy from 1997 and 2010, the word “copyright” doesn’t appear. In the new policy, the word shows up like flies at a picnic.

In fact, a footnote to the new policy clearly indicates that the divisional manager of DFO scientists must “sign off” on the copyright form, even after a manuscript has been accepted by a scientific journal. That gives the bureaucrat eleventh-hour powers to block a paper if DFO doesn’t want the information to be available to the scientific community or the public. One scientist familiar with that aspect of the new policy said: “Sounds like classic muzzling to me.”

Even if never exercised, the mere existence of this new power for DFO managers could suppress scientific ideas, hypotheses, data and conclusions that might raise serious objections to government policy.

Canadian government scientists have always rankled under policies that introduced politics into their profession. Scientists were muzzled in the 1990s by DFO managers over the creation of huge reservoirs in Northern Quebec. The federal government of the day didn’t want to stir up Quebec separatist sentiments. Accordingly, it discouraged its scientists from setting out the impact of the reservoir development from a scientific point of view.

The extension of the former publishing policy to papers authored by non-government scientists, and the assigning of final copyright approval to a government manager, will almost certainly discourage non-government scientists from collaborating with DFO scientists. The downside to that proposition is that it ultimately will have a negative impact on the quality of scientific advice provided to decision-makers and to Canadian society.

Jeff Hutchings, former chair of the Royal Society of Canada and Killam Professor in the faculty of science at Dalhousie University, sees the long shadow of government control — and even of self-censorship by scientists — lurking in the federal government’s new approach.

“The most disconcerting elements to the new policy are that they will apply to all scientific submissions, including those co-authored by non-DFO scientists, and that DFO managers have been given a hammer that they have not previously been able to wield: the withholding of copyright permission to allow for the publication of an article that has been externally peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by a scientific journal.”

Hutchings thinks that this could lead to government scientists, especially younger ones, thinking twice before undertaking certain projects that might displease their managers. Even if never exercised, the mere existence of this new power for DFO managers could suppress scientific ideas, hypotheses, data and conclusions that might raise serious objections to government policy.

The Harper government is well known for its policy-based approach to the facts rather than evidence-based decision making. The classic example was the disbanding of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy because, as Harper cabinet minister John Baird explained at the time, the government didn’t like the advice it was getting.

Nor has the Harper government hesitated to shoehorn scientists into a communications policy that treats them like ministerial office staff.

Where else in the free world do government minders accompany scientists to learned conferences like last year’s international polar conference in Montreal, telling them what they can say and to whom?

Where else is a scientist like Kristi Miller, who makes a research breakthrough, forbidden to talk about it?

And where else on the planet would a government close down a unique and celebrated facility like the ELA to save $2 million a year, while blowing $25 million trying to breathe relevance into a 200 year-old war?

With Edmonton recently under an air-quality warning, tar sands toxins having been found in lakes distant from the project, and water levels dipping in the Great Lakes, it would seem that good science is more important now than ever. Instead, Canadians get bloviating flyweights like Environment Minister Peter Kent declaring that muzzling scientists is established practise.

Which, of course, it is — in Stephen Harper’s Canada, where the specialty is political science.

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