It’s a little past New Year’s with the customary round ups of top stories – or ignored stories – for the year that was. But I find it hard to let go of this topic, which has raged – quietly – in Canada for a few years now: the so-called “muzzling” of scientists.
How does a topic rage quietly? By generating passion in small circles (scientists and journalists) while being virtually ignored everywhere else.
Admittedly, I’m biased. As a thinking citizen of two western democracies, I believe information should be freely available for open discussion. As a taxpayer I’d like to think publicly-funded research is being shared and used in a non-partisan manner. As someone who works in news circles, being able to speak to expert sources directly is easier, faster and more useful for me, and far more informative for the public.
Taking the flip side, there the old adage that “information is power.” And I agree that news coverage can be unbalanced/biased. Let’s face it, some news outlets have a tone, or agenda, whether they like to admit it or not. To name names, many point to Fox News when those charges come out, but I detect bias in organizations like CBC and NPR too. Taking all that into consideration, should it really be a surprise if politicians try to steer the conversation?
Here’s a article on that topic from Maclean’s Magazine’s out of their round up of favorite long-form articles from 2013. (There are many others, but one should suffice for a simple blog post.) Written by Jonathan Gatehouse back in May of 2013, the title alone does not sound completely objective: “When science goes silent: With the muzzling of scientists, Harper’s obsession with controlling the message verges on the Orwellian”.
I don’t cover a lot of hard news or breaking stories in person, but a number of years ago I did meet with at least one federal government researcher and asked if he/she had to get prior approval for our interview. (I am trying to obscure who I spoke with.) That nameless scientist said her/his field wasn’t considered sufficiently controversial to need constant supervision. But “hot potato” fields were a whole different ball game. Some Canadian researchers had to tread pretty carefully indeed. Sensitive subjects included gene research, GMO foods and just about anything to do with climate change or potentially negative environmental impacts associated with resource development.
So, as indicated earlier, I have a dog in this fight and I may not be able to present it in an even-handed way.
If you have the time or interest, give the Maclean’s article a read and comment further on the topic.
Americans and Canadians face a lot of policy decisions that (one would think) should be based on the best available information. Even if this seems like some other nation’s small domestic quarrel, how knowledge is funded and released should matter – to everyone.