Scientists call federal confidentiality and publication rules “chilling”
Feb 14, 2013
By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News
A bid by the federal government to impose sweeping confidentiality rules on an Arctic science project has run into serious resistance in the United States.
“I’m not signing it,” said Andreas Muenchow, of the University of Delaware, who has taken issue with the wording that Canada’s Fisheries and Oceans department has proposed for the Canada-U.S. project.
It’s an affront to academic freedom and a “potential muzzle,” said Muenchow, who has been collaborating with DFO scientists on the project in the Eastern Arctic since 2003.
DFO’s proposed confidentiality provisions say all technology and “other information” related to the Arctic project “shall be deemed to be confidential and neither party may release any such information to others in any way whatsoever without the prior written authorization of the other party.”
If enforced, Muenchow says the fisheries department could prevent researchers from publishing scientific findings, blogging about their project or sharing information on the project with the media and public, which is encouraged by the U.S. agencies co-funding the project. Muenchow and DFO scientists involved in the project travel north by icebreaker to deploy and retrieve instruments to assess oceanographic conditions in the ice-choked Nares Strait, which runs between Canada’s Ellesmere Island and Greenland and may have a significant effect on ocean circulation.
Muenchow’s problem with the DFO comes amid growing concern and controversy over the Harper government’s micro-management of scientific projects.
The procedures say DFO managers will decide when and if studies involving DFO scientists can be published in external scientific journals, which are at the heart of scientific communication.
Postmedia News has learned that the new procedures were emailed to scientists in DFO’s central and Arctic science sector and came down from the office of Michelle Wheatley, the region’s director of science.
The Jan. 29 memo said the rules apply to “all” – the all in bold italics – studies involving DFO scientists, who have a long history of collaborating with researchers at universities in Canada and abroad to assess everything from sea ice to contamination levels in wildlife.
The DFO scientists have been told they must now “wait for approval” before submitting their studies for publication in science journals. “The responsible Division Manager will review for any concerns/impacts to DFO policy,” said the procedures that come with a flowchart.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable,” one federal scientist who received the email told Postmedia News Wednesday. The scientist, who asked to remain anonymous, said the rules appear to be “all about control.”
Frank Stanek, manager of DFO media relations, said the department was not prepared to comment Wednesday on the publication rules and the concerns they are generating.
Fisheries scientist Jeffrey Hutchings at Dalhousie University said the rules are sure to have “a chilling effect” and could prevent important scientific findings from being made public.
Hutchings said the new procedures will also likely hamper collaborative research between DFO scientists and academics and deter DFO scientists from pursuing work perceived as politically sensitive.
“This is a greater exertion of control over the communication of science,” said Hutchings. “There is no other way to interpret it.”
Meantime, Muenchow, an oceanographer at the University of Delaware, says the sweeping confidentiality provisions DFO proposed for the Arctic project would be more appropriate for classified military research.
Muenchow, who blogs about his Arctic work, says the research office at the University of Delaware is now negotiating with DFO officials to rework the agreement so it does not “sign away my freedom to speak, publish, educate, learn and share.”
DFO’s Stanek was unable to explain the change in tone in DFO’s dealing with Muenchow and the University of Delaware.
The proposed agreement DFO sent to Muenchow in January is to cover a one-year extension of the long-running Canada-U.S. project. The 19-page agreement includes a two-page appendix spelling out confidentiality and publication rules.
The previous Canada-U.S. agreement for the project, signed in 2003, was 11 pages long and contained two sentences on publication and encouraged the sharing of information.
“Data and any other project-related information shall be freely available to all Parties to this Agreement and may be used, disseminated or published, by any party, at any time,” the 2003 agreement said.
DFO’s Stanek said the more sweeping confidentiality policy proposed in January is a “legal template” created by the department.
“All Fisheries and Oceans Canada projects undertaken collaboratively with other parties would be subject to similar, mutual confidentiality provisions,” Stanek said in an email response to questions.
As for the rationale for the sweeping restrictions, Stanek said “the confidentiality provisions are to protect the intellectual property rights of all participants in a project.”
Hutchings shares Muenchow’s concern. He said DFO’s confidentiality provisions will be interpreted “by non-DFO scientists, indeed non-Canadian scientists, as an infringement on their right to publish the results of their research and, thus, to communicate their science.”’
And, he said, it will do little to encourage collaboration between government and non-government scientists. “Indeed, the effect will almost certainly be the opposite,” Hutchings said.