‘Muzzling’ of scientists called threat to democracy

Feb 21, 2013

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has been asked to investigate the way the Harper government has been “muzzling” federal scientists.

The request, accompanied by a report on the government’s “systematic efforts” to obstruct access to researchers, was made jointly on Wednesday by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, a national non-profit group.

“There are few issues more fundamental to democracy than the ability of the public to access scientific information produced by government scientists – information that their tax dollars have paid for,” they say. “We as a society cannot make informed choices about critical issues if we are not fully informed about the facts.”

The request for an investigation comes after years of controversy over the silencing of federal scientists who used to be encouraged to speak about their research on everything from melting permafrost to pesticide pollution.

Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear said in an email statement Wednesday “we reject the premise of the accusations.”Goodyear said the “government provides significant access to federal scientists.”

In a 128-page report sent to the information commissioner, the UVic lawyers and Democracy Watch catalogue how scientists now need permission from Ottawa to give interviews and are instructed to follow “approved lines” when speaking with reporters.

The report, Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy, notes how the Harper government has generated national and international headlines for stopping some government researchers from talking about their studies on prehistoric floods, the unprecedented 2011 Arctic Ozone hole, and snow research in Ontario.

It argues the government has implemented policies that now “routinely require political approval before scientists can speak to the media about their scientific findings.”

Government scientists are “routinely instructed to not speak publicly – or to respond with pre-scripted ‘approved lines,'” it says.

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