WATCH: Muzzling scientists leading to 'death spiral'

WATCH: Muzzling scientists leading to 'death spiral'

Postby Oscar » Tue May 19, 2015 10:38 am

WATCH: Muzzling scientists leading to 'death spiral' for government research, retired biologist says

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Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist speaks out only after retirement

CBC News Posted: May 19, 2015 8:01 AM AT| Last Updated: May 19, 2015 1:17 PM AT

A recently retired Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist says the muzzling of federal government scientists is worse than anyone can imagine.

Steve Campana, known for his expertise on everything from Great white sharks to porbeagles and Arctic trout, says the atmosphere working for the federal government is toxic.

The Halifax-based scientist, who only agreed to talk to CBC after he retired from the department, says federal scientists have been working in a climate of fear.

"I am concerned about the bigger policy issues that are essentially leading to a death spiral for government science," he said in an exclusive interview.

"I see that is going to be a huge problem in the coming years. We are at the point where the vast majority of our senior scientists are in the process of leaving now disgusted as I am with the way things have gone, and I don't think there is any way for it to be recovered."


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WATCH: CBC the fifth estate: Silence of the Labs

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■Federal scientists muzzled by media policies, report suggests
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■Federal scientist media request generates email frenzy but no interview
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■Why muzzling government scientists can be a good thing: Day 6
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Re: WATCH: Muzzling scientists leading to 'death spiral'

Postby Oscar » Tue Apr 30, 2019 9:28 am

Canadian Scientists Explain Exactly How Their Government Silenced Science

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It wasn’t just climate research. Rock snot, sharks and polar bears: All were off-limits during the Harper administration

The Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario is one of the world's leading long-term experiments tracking the effects of climate change, pollution and other factors on freshwater ecosystems. (L. Hayhurst)

By Joshua Rapp Learn January 30, 2017

Whenever he got an interview request from a journalist, Max Bothwell felt a sense of dread. He knew what was about to happen.

It was 2013, and Bothwell was a government scientist with Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada), the country’s environmental watchdog. The biologist’s work was fairly non-controversial at the time—he studied a microscopic algae that formed on rocks near streams, affectionately known as “rock snot”—but that didn’t matter. Whenever a journalist reached out to him or any of his fellow government scientists, a clear series of steps followed.

First, the scientist had to contact a special media control center that dealt with these requests. These media relations staffers served as middlemen, modifying the message slightly to suit political goals, according to Bothwell and other Canadian scientists who worked during this all-too-recent era in Canada’s history.

“We were all under a clear understanding that we could be dismissed for talking directly to the press,” Bothwell says.

Next, the media control center would contact the journalist to request written questions, and then go back to the scientist to get written answers. Then, they would decide whether to send these directly to the reporter or to change or omit parts of the answers. This bureaucratic thicket became so dense that, at one point, it surfaced that a request from a journalist from The Canadian Press to speak with Bothwell resulted in 110 pages of emails between 16 different government communications staffers.

Other times, the strategy was just to delay a response until it was past the reporters' deadlines. Bothwell says he experienced this when outlets like the Vancouver Sun and even National Geographic tried to contact him about his work.

“That was deliberate. That wasn’t accidental, that was policy,” says Ian Stirling, an Arctic biologist who worked for Environmental Canada for 37 years doing research on polar bears. "They’d simply stall until you went away.”

Besides frustrating scientists themselves, such political interference prevents the public from hearing about crucial work. Environment Canada—like the United States' Environmental Protection Agency, which came under a media blackout and a temporary freeze on grants and contracts during the first week of the Trump Administration—was a taxpayer-funded agency meant to serve the public by providing key information on climate change, air pollution and water quality.

“Disservice is too mild a word” to describe the effect of this muzzling, says Steven Campana, a shark scientist who spent 32 years working for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s a cheat for the taxpaying public because it’s the taxpaying public that is funding this government research. When that research leads to very positive things, or even if it's negative, the people that paid for it deserve to hear about it.”

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been in power since 2006, but it wasn't until his party won a majority in 2011 that he was given a broader mandate to rule. One of his first steps was to create new restrictions on how and what government scientists could communicate to the public.

Early on in his administration, Harper boasted that Canada would become an “energy superpower” built on the growth of the Athabasca oil sands in the western part of the country. This oil-rich region would subsequently become a driving economic force for the country, until low global oil prices caused the the loonie (the Canadian dollar) to crash. Climate change science—and environmental regulations—posed a hindrance to that ambitious vision.

Over the next few years, government scientists would experience a tightening of media control, unreasonable approval procedures and drastic funding cuts to climate change research. This muzzling is well-documented: Canadian journalists tracked everything from the shuttering of oceanic research libraries to the attempted defunding of a research station that studied upper atmospheric space winds. A 2013 survey of scientists by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada elaborated on how scientists felt the impact of this political interference.

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