The Canadian government has overhauled science communication policies in a bid to silence any evidence that might go against its economic agenda.
Science, and the culture of evidence and inquiry it supports, has a long relationship with democracy. Widely available facts have long served as a check on political power. Attacks on science, and on the ability of scientists to communicate freely, are ultimately attacks on democratic governance.
It is no secret the current Canadian government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper has a problem with science. In fact, Canada’s scientists are so frustrated with this government’s recent overhaul of scientific communications policies and cuts to research programmes they took to the streets, marching on Parliament Hill last summer to decry the “Death of Evidence”. Their concerns – expressed on their protest banners – followed a precise logic: “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”
Since 2006, the Harper government has made bold moves to control or prevent the free flow of scientific information across Canada, particularly when that information highlights the undesirable consequences of industrial development. The free flow of information is controlled in two ways: through the muzzling of scientists who might communicate scientific information, and through the elimination of research programmes that might participate in the creation of scientific information or evidence.
Federal scientists, academics, journalists, and environmental organisations across Canada have complained of increasingly strict communications policies that prevent researchers from relaying crucial scientific information to the media or the public. Such suppression of communication ranges from the laughable – such as Environment Canada scientist Mark Tushingham being prevented from attending the launch of his own book, a novel that explored a future world catastrophically altered by global warming – to the systemic – such as federal scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans being required to obtain permission from high-level bureaucrats to discuss peer-reviewed research with the media.
The problem of muzzling is widespread in federal departments, agencies, and organisations tasked with scientific research. The problem has been endemic since the election of the Harper Conservatives nearly seven years ago. In 2007, the Harper government established new rules that controlled Environment Canada scientists’ interactions with the media.
Under this new protocol, senior scientists are required to obtain permission from the government before speaking with reporters. A leaked internal Environment Canada document revealed the new policy had reduced the department’s engagement with media on climate change by 80 per cent. That same document also revealed Environment Canada employees felt the intended design of the new procedure was to silence climate scientists.
In 2008, the Harper government eliminated the position of National Science Advisor, a role that created an important link between the scientific community and top political leaders, including the prime minister. Since then, ministerial directives have trickled down throughout federal departments, including the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Natural Resources Canada, to further limit unmonitored interactions between scientists and the press.
These directives usually involve burdensome administrative delays that inhibit the ability of scientists to engage freely with journalists. Examples of the impact of these directives are not difficult to find. In 2010, for example, Scott Dallimore, a scientist with Natural Resources Canada, was not allowed to comment on his research – concerning a northern Canadian flood that occurred 13,000 years ago – without permission from then natural resources minister Christian Paradis.
In early 2011, Kristi Miller, a scientist with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was prevented from responding to media inquiries regarding her important research into declining salmon stocks. Orders to keep Miller from speaking with journalists came from the Privy Council Office in Ottawa.
And the list goes on.
In the aftermath of the March 2011 Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Postmedia News journalist Margaret Munro was denied access to information regarding Canada’s radiation detectors and was prevented from speaking with experts working with those detectors. The information was eventually made public by an Austrian research team working with data from global radiation monitors – including Canada’s.
In April 2011, scientists from Environment Canada were prevented from speaking with the media about their paper recently published in Geophysical Research Letters. The paper concluded that a two-degree Celsius increase in temperatures worldwide might be unavoidable in the next century. Six months later, Environment Canada scientist David Tarasick was denied the opportunity to speak with the media about his research concerning an “unprecedented” loss of ozone over the Arctic. He told Postmedia News: “I’m available when Media Relations say I’m available.”
That November, scientists from Environment Canada were restricted from talking to media about the results of a study confirming that snowfall near Alberta’s tar sands was contaminated with petroleum-based pollutants. These scientists were directed to either shunt media inquiries to a government spokesperson or refer to a list of scripted statements that claimed a 2010 government study found no toxins in the Athabasca River and, further, that no definitive link had been made between tar sands contaminants and the region’s mutated and cancerous fish – a statement in direct contradiction to Environment Canada’s emerging research.
Last spring, the Harper government sent media relations chaperones to shadow Environment Canada scientists at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal. Conference participants were ordered to ensure media liaison personnel were present to record all interactions between federal scientists and the media.
In early 2013, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans introduced a new policy that characterised all department research as ‘confidential’ unless released by high-ranking officials – leaving the fate of scientific communication in the hands of bureaucrats rather than scientists.
Beyond tight communications controls, the Harper Government has also constrained or eliminated several high-profile research labs, scientific institutions, and other data-gathering organisations. The effect of these closures is that the very building block of science – evidence – is cut off at its foundation.
In 2010, the Harper government cut the mandatory long-form census, the country’s most robust and consistent point of data collection on everything from language to household purchases. Without this type of comprehensive data, there is no reliable and transparent way to monitor government, to demand democratic accountability, or to argue for evidence-based decision-making, according to former chief statistician Munir A Sheikh.
In August 2011, the government announced 700 Environment Canada positions would be terminated in order to pursue “government-wide fiscal restraint”. By February 2012, only five of Canada’s ten LiDAR (light detection and ranging) observation stations, part of the Global Atmosphere Watch Aerosol LiDAR Observation Network, were still in operation.
These 10 observation stations had been conducting weekly ozone and fossil fuel pollution measurements since 1966. The closure of the research stations followed the removal of Canada’s CORALnet website, which distributed crucial ozone and pollution data to research laboratories and scientific organisations across the globe.
Around the same time, the Harper government announced a forced closure of the Polar Environment Atmosphere Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Nunavut. PEARL participated in groundbreaking climate research and played a pivotal role in discovering an enormous hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic. The closure of PEARL was largely a result of the failure of the federal government to renew funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Studies, which expired in 2011. The agency awarded $118 million of federal funding to specific climate research endeavours between 2000 and 2011.
In May 2012, the Harper government announced that funding would be cut in 2013 for the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy (NRTEE), a body seeking to regulate Canada’s carbon emissions. Just recently, NRTEE was prevented from making its documents and research available on a non-governmental website because of government restrictions on information. Also in May, Vancouver Island’s Institute of Ocean Sciences was informed that it would no longer receive funding from the federal government. Peter Ross, the country’s only marine mammal toxicologist, lost his research position, along with 1,074 other Department of Fisheries and Ocean employees.
These cuts to funding for environmental research were followed by the infamously anti-science Omnibus Budget Bill C-38 in June 2012. The bill effectively cut funding to, dismantled, or weakened the following environmental bodies or pieces of legislation: the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act; the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency; the Canadian Environmental Protection Act; the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act; the Fisheries Act; the Navigable Waters Protection Act; the Energy Board Act; the Species at Risk Act; the Parks Canada Agency Act; the Canadian Oil and Gas Operations Act; the Coasting Trade Act; the Nuclear Safety Control Act; and the Canada Seeds Act.
In addition, money was granted to investigate the charitable status of environmental groups, while water programmes, wastewater surveys and emissions monitoring programmes were cut.
Also last summer, the government announced it would cut $3 million in funding to the Experimental Lakes Area, where researchers studied the effects of industrial chemicals and pollutants on waterways, fish, and other aquatic life.
In the absence of rigorous, scientific information – and an informed public – decision-making becomes an exercise in upholding the preferences of those in power. In Canada today, as in most of the developed world, power has become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands – hands that are inevitably attached to the bodies of big business and the state.
And in the light of Prime Minister Harper’s agenda to rebrand Canada as the next energy superpower, it would seem that both the corporate interests and the state are focused on the expansion of the resource extraction industry in Canada.
Yet, scientists around the world have made clear that large industrial states have an urgent responsibility to scale back their carbon emissions if catastrophic global warming is to be avoided. Major scientific organisations have voiced similar concerns regarding atmospheric and oceanic pollution, suggesting contaminants related to the production and consumption of fossil fuels are endangering the health and well-being of human, plant and animal life.
Despite the scientific community’s appeal for a wholesale switch from carbon-based fuels to alternative and renewable energy, the growth of resource-based economies like Canada prolong our dependence on costly and unsustainable energy sources like oil and gas. The long-term viability of these resources is becoming increasingly threatened as oil and gas supplies become harder and more costly to access, both in economic and environmental terms.
Demand for these resources – including oil from the Alberta tar sands – depends on our ability to justify their development in environmental and economic terms. The costs associated with developing oil in the tar sands, while only marginally defensible economically, are much more difficult to justify on an ecological scale. And this is where the work of scientists runs counter to the agenda of industrialists.
Despite evidence to the contrary, industry supporters such as Canada’s Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Alberta Premier Alison Redford promote Alberta’s tar sands as “environmentally friendly” and “green”. It is likely because such claims contradict a growing scientific consensus that there is a formal effort to suppress scientific opinion.
Calvin Sandborn, legal director at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, has reviewed the government’s role in the muzzling of scientists. He says there is some consistency across the board when you consider what scientific information is regularly silenced.
“It is interesting to see that the topics that require the highest level of ministerial control are topics related to the tar sands, climate change, polar bears, caribou, and the oil and gas industry. Those are all terms used in the federal government policies and on those topics the rules are the strictest. The scientists have to get the highest level of ministerial approval to talk about those topics. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s a coincidence.”
Scientific research plays a crucial role in our ability to knowledgeably engage with the natural world. In many ways, scientists act as interpreters for nature, and for the species, waterways and ecosystems that cannot speak for themselves. When we sever the link between science and society, we effectively sever the link between society and the natural world.
There are facts about our environment that we simply would not know had scientific inquiry not revealed them. Consider global warming. Without rigorous, long-term scientific observation, we would be ignorant of the massive impact the burning of fossil fuels is having on the atmosphere and geophysical features like the polar ice caps.
Without science, we’re walking blind. Blindness can have a serious impact when it comes to public opinion and decision-making. When we limit the production of scientific evidence, it creates a knowledge vacuum that inflates the power of political influence. If politicians cannot point to facts in defence of their arguments then there is little left but ideology to rely upon.
A functioning democracy relies upon the interplay of fact, rationality and a well-informed public. Within that context, good arguments are incisive political instruments: precise, clear, and informative. But good arguments require evidence, which can only be produced through scientific inquiry. Science, and the evidence-based discourse it enables, is the foundation upon which the whole democratic mechanism turns.
The relationship between science and democracy is thus an intimate one. And to the extent that we tolerate the suppression of science in Canada, we can expect a correlative suppression of democracy.
In Canada we are witnessing the muzzling of scientists and the elimination of federal funding that enables scientific research. When scientists are prevented from providing the public with information, there is a reduction in the capacity for democracy.
Without science neither the public nor its leaders can be sufficiently knowledgeable to make informed decisions. Decision-making becomes little more than an exercise in ideology and the use of power.
The respected climate scientist Andrew Weaver argues that “we have a crisis in Canada”. This crisis, he says, “is in terms of the development of information and science to inform decision-making. What we have replaced that with is an ideological approach to decision-making.”
For Weaver, science doesn’t dictate what policy should be. Science isn’t prescriptive.“But what science is there to do is to inform policy discussions.
You make the policy based on evidence as well as opinions of people around you. What you cannot do in a democratic society is suppress evidence because then you’re into propaganda and ideology. And this is what is happening in Canada. The evidence used to actually inform society, to actually determine whether or not they are in favour of a policy, is suppressed.”
“So,” he says, “we have a problem. [Muzzling] throws a wedge into our democratic process.”
He adds: “This is a crisis of democracy. We need to actually, as citizens, reclaim democracy and there are many ways of doing it. But the first thing we have to demand is access to information because without information we’re ignorant and ignorance actually leads to the rise of these autocratic systems.”
When a nation’s preeminent scientists take to the streets, wielding placards that say “No science. No evidence. No truth. No democracy” there is much more than a research institution’s budget at stake. If Canada is to recover from the serious dismantling of scientific institutions and practices across the country, it will require a sustained effort by scientists, citizens, and policymakers. It is much easier, after all, to tear down than to rebuild.
* Carol Linnitt is site manager and director of research at DeSmog Canada. This is an edited version of an article published in the current edition of Academic Matters
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