By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News
The Harper government has tightened the muzzle on federal scientists, going so far as to control when and what they can say about floods at the end of the last ice age.
Natural Resources Canada (NRC) scientists were told this spring they need “pre-approval” from Minister Christian Paradis’ office to speak with journalists. Their “media lines” also need ministerial approval, say documents obtained by Postmedia News through access-to-information legislation.
The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.
They also give a glimpse of how Canadians are being cut off from scientists whose work is financed by taxpayers, critics say, and is often of significant public interest — be it about fish stocks, genetically modified crops or mercury pollution in the Athabasca River.
“It’s Orwellian,” says Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria. The public, he says, has a right to know what federal scientists are discovering and learning.
Scientists at NRC, many of them planetary experts, study everything from seabeds to melting glaciers. They have long been able to discuss their research, until the rules changed this spring.
“We have new media interview procedures that require pre-approval of certain types of interview requests by the minister’s office,” wrote Judy Samoil, NRC’s western regional communications manager, in a March 24 e-mail to colleagues.
The policy applies to “high-profile” issues such as “climate change, oilsands” and when “the reporter is with an international or national media organization (such as the CBC or the Canwest paper chain),” she wrote.
The Canwest papers are now part of Postmedia Network Inc.
Samoil later elaborated, saying “the regional communications managers were advised of this change a couple of weeks ago.”
The documents show the new rules being so broadly applied that one scientist was not permitted to discuss a study in a major research journal without “pre-approval” from political staff in Paradis’ office.
NRC scientist Scott Dallimore coauthored the study, published in the journal Nature on April 1, about a colossal flood that swept across northern Canada 13,000 years ago, when massive ice dams gave way at the end of the last ice age.
The study was considered so newsworthy that two British universities issued releases to alert the international media.
It was, however, deemed so sensitive in Ottawa that Dallimore, who works at NRC’s laboratories outside Victoria, was told he had to wait for clearance from the minister’s office.
Dallimore tried to tell the department’s communications managers the flood study was anything but politically sensitive.
“This is a blue sky science paper,” he said noting: “There are no anticipated links to minerals, energy or anthropogenic climate change.”
But the bureaucrats in Ottawa insisted. “We will have to get the minister’s office approval before going ahead with this interview,” Patti Robson, the department’s media relations manager, wrote in an e-mail after a reporter from Postmedia News (then Canwest News Service) approached Dallimore.
Robson asked Dallimore to provide the reporter’s questions and “the proposed responses,” saying: “We will send it up to MO (minister’s office) for approval.” Robson said interviews about the flood study needed ministerial approval for two reasons: the inquiring reporter represented a “national news outlet” and the “subject has wide-ranging implications.”
The documents show several communications managers, policy advisers, political staff and senior officials were involved drafting and vetting “media lines” on the ancient flood study.
Dallimore finally got clearance to talk to reporters from Margaux Stastny, director of communication in Paradis’ office, on March 31, a week after NRC communications branch was told the study was appearing in Nature, and two days after reporters began approaching Dallimore for interviews.
By then, the reporters’ deadlines had passed and they had already completed their stories about the ancient flood. Canwest News Service, CBC, ABC, Reuters and other organizations based their reports on interviews with co-authors of the study from universities outside Canada that responded to interview requests promptly.
This effectively “muzzled” Dallimore by not allowing him to do timely interviews, says Weaver, at the University of Victoria, who says the incident shows how “ridiculous” the situation has got in Ottawa.
“If you can’t get access to a nice, feel-good science story about flooding at the end of last glaciation, can you imagine trying to get access to scientists with information about cadmium and mercury in the Athabasca River? Absolutely impossible,” says Weaver, in reference to growing controversy over contaminants downstream from Alberta’s oilsands.
Environment Canada and Health Canada now tightly control media access to researchers and orchestrate interviews that are approved.
Environment Canada has even produced “media lines” for federal scientists to stick to when discussing climate studies they have coauthored with Weaver and are based on research paid for through his university grants.
“There is no question that there is an orchestrated campaign at the federal level to make sure that their scientists can’t communicate to the public about what they do,” says Weaver, adding that the crackdown is seriously undermining morale in federal labs. “Science is about generating new knowledge and communicating it to others.”