Controversy (and free films) at Montreal Polar Event

Sometimes events expand beyond their intended scope. Take the International Polar Year 2012 conference taking place in Montreal April 22-27. The event’s sub-title “from knowledge to action” may take on unexpected irony, because of long-simmering allegations that government scientists here are feeling “muzzled”. More about that in a moment.

The starting point for this post was my wish to update a story heard previously on NCPR. Kevin Nikkel’s “Treasures of the Far Fur Country” showed in Ottawa earlier this month. At the time Nikkel was still working on a Montreal screening. The good news is Far Fur Country will be part of a two night free film festival this Tuesday and Wednesday (that film will screen Wednesday, April 25, 9:15 pm).

Quoting from the website:

The Canadian Film Institute is proud to present the International Polar Film Festival in Montreal, running April 24th and 25th at the Cinéma Impérial (Centre Sandra & Leo Kolber, Salle Lucie et André Chagnon). Featuring two nights of extraordinary films, the festival will present complex, fascinating and stunning visions of the Arctic and Antarctic worlds.

Fourteen different films will be screened, with eight Canadian entries highlighting the festival’s programming line-up. Entries from the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden will also be presented. All films will be screened free of charge and in their original languages with English subtitles.

Various themes will be explored throughout the festival including: The politics of global warming, the impact of climate change on the polar regions of the earth and the natural beauty of these extreme landscapes.

Free films, nice! Global warming, new research, how topical! It all sounds good, right?

But since Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party came into power, there’s been simmering controversy in Canada about what government scientists are allowed to do or say when it comes to talking about their work. That struggle may be part and parcel of this polar event. Postmedia news is reporting scientists have instructions on how to interact with media and will be under observation as well.

“Until now such a crude heavy-handed approach to muzzle Canadian scientists, prior to a significant international Arctic science conference hosted by Canada, would have been unthinkable,” says a senior scientist, who has worked for Environment Canada for decades. He asked not to be identified due to the possibility of repercussions from Ottawa.

“The memo is clearly designed to intimidate government scientists from Environment Canada,” he says. “Why they would do such an unethical thing, I can’t even begin to imagine, but it is enormously embarrassing to us in the international world of science.”

This topic didn’t spring up overnight. It’s been a concern for scientists for some years now – and a source of vexation for journalists like Tom Spears who just want to file interesting, accurate science stories.

Believers would assert that science serves pure knowledge unbounded by politics and national boundaries. Skeptics maintain that science only claims impartiality, but is actually subject to a great deal of pressure, from politicians, from funders…even peer pressure.

So, do scientists answer to anyone besides the scientific community? When their salaries and research are paid for by tax dollars, who’s the boss? The head of government? The scientific community? The citizen taxpayer?

Is this another example of how the politics of global warming seem to crop up in odd places with disproportional impact?

I started out just wanting to call attention to a nice film forum. But there’s more going on in Montreal this week than free films.

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9 Comments on “Controversy (and free films) at Montreal Polar Event”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Here is the problem. Every time money is involved there will be skeptics. As they say, “follow the money.”
    So many people are making a buck off Global Warming/Climate Change. That gets the ball rolling. Add on the fact that gloom and doom gets more press and thus more money than “everything is wonderful” ever will.
    The charge that environmentalism is a new religion results from scientists behaving the same way as religious leaders. They expect everyone to bow down and take their word for it. “How dare you question my authority,” is what the global warming scientists seem to be saying.

  2. Lucy Martin says:

    Well, this particular conference inevitably involves the whole global warming/climate change issue. And that tends to get people riled up.

    But this isn’t limited to climate change. It’s a far broader question: should government-employed scientists have to get prior approval from politicians to speak to the press, or be limited in what they can say when they are interacting with journalists?

    Scientists, journalists and the public all have an interest in that question, I should think.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    No disagreement on that point, Lucy. But here is the problem there – government employed.
    The same problem exists when employed by the private sector.

  4. Walker says:

    I’m sorry, but when “we the people” hire scientists to study an important issue no one should be telling them what their results should look like ahead of time. We need to know the actual truth, not some politician’s idea of the truth.

    There are those who think that scientists routinely skew their outcomes to match their funder’s expectations. I think that this is the exception. Scientists want to be able to hold their head up amongst their own kind, and those who produce bad science are easily detected by their peers. The idea that a significant number of scientists are for sale is a myth created by those wishing to discredit findings that they don’t like.

  5. Ken Hall says:

    Pete says: “Every time money is involved there will be skeptics. As they say, “follow the money.” So many people are making a buck off Global Warming/Climate Change.”

    Quick Google searches yield the following:

    1. American Petroleum Institute estimates there are 9.2 million people employed in America’s oil and natural gas industry.

    2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010 estimated there were about 9500 Atmospheric Scientists, Including Meteorologists working for the US Government.

    Let us assume everyone of those Atmospheric Scientists and Meteorologists working for the US Government is busily researching “global warming” and publishing feverishly (not a likely scenario). Ignoring the coal industry we find there are roughly 1000 oil/gas industry employees for every one of the atmospheric scientists working for the US Government.

    I do believe you are correct Pete it’s the money and at a 1000 to 1 employee ratio my guess is the largest pile of lucre is going to be found when one looks into the hydrocarbon industry rather than the government scientific community.

  6. JDM says:

    “When their salaries and research are paid for by tax dollars, who’s the boss?”

    This is a good question. It causes one to take pause with the results of their findings.

  7. Ken Hall says:

    As to Canada’s governmental muzzling of her environmental spokespersons; anyone think her southern neighbor, who is buying plenty of Canada’s black gold, would possibly lean on Canada?

    Nah; just a figment of my imagination.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    Just for the record, although Antarctica is only into its autumn by one month, temps are now down to as low as a minus 95 F.
    While we had a mild winter, most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere had a very cold and snowy winter.
    And while I agree with everything people are suggesting we do to combat Global Warming because pollution is pollution, only time will tell what the future holds.
    As to pollution, all efforts will fail if the human population continues to grow. More people equals more pollution no matter what you do.

  9. JDM says:

    Each new birth presents the opportunity for the next great breakthrough in science, in humanity, in arts, etc.

    Someday, one of the billion new kids being born will develop cold fusion. Then we can all fly around in George-Jetson-style car-planes on a thimble-full of water. The other billion or so kids will also make their own contributions, in a free society.

    The greatest advances in science have come along with population growth, and the need to adapt, not in spite of it.

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