Is science being “muzzled” in Canada?

A "Stand Up for Science" demonstration in November at Science World in Vancouver, BC. Photo: Chris Yakimov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A “Stand Up for Science” demonstration in November at Science World in Vancouver, BC. Photo: Chris Yakimov, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

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.

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8 Comments on “Is science being “muzzled” in Canada?”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    I have noted on the In Box before that when I worked for the state there were periods when I had to refer inquiries from the media to Albany. It was my observation over the 30 years that I held that job that it was generally under a Republican (conservative) administration that the control was most strict. Democratic (liberal or progressive) administrations tended to be looser in terms of media contacts. I think it is part of the conservative psyche to feel embattled and defensive thus a need to control what people know about what they are doing. I’m sure the conservatives who read this blog will disagree but that is the way I see it.

  2. Peter Hahn says:

    Interesting article. You would think that especially the conservative pro-business types would be in favor of truth and transparency so that the market could work its magic, but you would be wrong. Im not sure how they rationalize it. Certainly controlling the messaging is a key to staying in power for any political persuasion.

  3. Well Canada is run by a neo-Tea Party government. So it’s hardly surprising that they would try to ram through their minority* agenda just like the US Tea Party.

    (*-The ruling government was elected with 39+% of the vote while left and center-left parties got over 60%)

  4. Peter: few conservatives truly believe in the market. That’s why most support corporate cronyism, which is perverts the market at least as much as “socialism.”

  5. The Original Larry says:

    A quick look at the party affiliation of members of the Canadian Parliament shows that the Conservative party has a majority in both Houses, so it is hardly a minority government as you imply with your “elected with 39+% of the vote” comment. I’m no expert on Canadian government but I am pretty sure that election to Parliament is by district, not by overall percentage of the national popular vote. It’s a common liberal falsehood that the party with the highest national vote total should control the legislature. The legislative branches of national governments in the US and Canada are elected locally, not nationally.

  6. Paul says:

    There is a big difference between “muzzling” science and using some type of gate keeper strategy to deal with the press.

  7. Original Larry: I did not refer to the Canadian government as a minority government. I referred to their agenda as a minority agenda which it mathematically is. Just as is the House Republican agenda (the Democrats beat them by 1% nationally in the popular vote in 2012 House races).

    Furthermore, I did not say that “the party with the highest national vote total should control the legislature.”

    I don’t mind you or anyone else disagreeing with me. But try agreeing or disagreeing with what I actually said.

  8. Also BTW, since you admit to being no expert on Canadian government, I will tell you that the composition of the Canadian Senate plays no bearing on the composition of the government.

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