Photo: Politics trumps science yet again: Ottawa silences fisheries scientist

Where they could once talk freely, federal scientists and researchers are now carefully managed by media and communications staff in Ottawa (Credit: bruce... via Flickr)

By Kealy Doyle, Communications Coordinator

Another sad day for science. Senior political staff in Ottawa have prevented a fisheries scientist from speaking out about her research.

Dr. Kristi Miller's work as the head of a $6-million salmon genetics project may shed important light on the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon. Her study suggests a virus might be responsible for killing off salmon in large numbers before they reach their spawning grounds. It created a huge buzz when it was published in the respected scientific journal Science earlier this year.

But we're unable to hear more from Dr. Miller herself, after officials with the Privy Council Office in Ottawa decided she couldn't speak to the media. The email trails obtained by Postmedia show that scientists within the Department of Fisheries and Oceans were chomping at the bit to provide interviews and briefings, but Privy Council Office staff nixed this on the grounds that it would unduly "influence" the Cohen Commission, the ongoing federal inquiry into sockeye salmon decline. This is an unusual position given that the inquiry's purpose is to unveil all relevant information on the decline of salmon.

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Or perhaps not that unusual. An article published today in the Vancouver Sun points out that this is just the latest example of how the current federal government has "tightened the leash on federal scientists, whose work is financed by taxpayers and is often of significant public interest—be it about fish stocks, air pollution or food safety." Where they could once talk freely, federal scientists and researchers are now carefully managed by media and communications staff in Ottawa (as we can see from the trail of emails described in the article). And only a couple of months ago, Dr. Suzuki spoke out about the worrying political war on the science of climate change.

If we're to tackle the great challenges ahead, we need to know our leaders are committed to an open, transparent dialogue about causes and solutions. The David Suzuki Foundation is working to make sure the Cohen Commission makes recommendations to increase the transparency of science and decision-making in government. A democratic society can't function properly without good information presented in a credible and understandable way, especially when that information is produced by scientists in the public service. We need all the cards—and players—at the table.

Read about DSF's involvement with the Cohen Commission.

July 27, 2011

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Jul 27, 2011
6:39 PM

Why is this Prime Minister so afraid of people talking about our problems , reminds me of a President what was his name . Funny how we do not remember him eh Steph

Jul 28, 2011
6:37 AM

I’m an environmental scientist and have followed similar scenarios over the past 40 years, and quite frankly I can’t say that I’m surprised. Although some governments (federal or provincial) are more open to scientists speaking publicly on their work, most are prone to restrict their activities, for whatever reasons. It’s difficult to say if there is a clear trend going on here toward controlling information getting to the public, or it’s again politicians trying to get elected. However, one thing is clear, this is not in the best interest of Canadians. Not unlike the rest of the world, our country is facing very serious environmental-social issues and the only solution is to get (informed) people involved in decision-making processes. The censoring or muffling of scientists is counter-productive and undemocratic. As taxpayers we have every right to hear the unadulterated story directly from our public service scientists.

Jul 31, 2011
8:05 PM

Dear David Suzuki Foundation Administrators,
You need to provide a way for your supporters (and I do mean your financial supporters as well as your philosophical supporters) to forward links to your important press releases to other potentially sympathetic Canadians if you want to grow your base of supporters. I am a supporter. I cannot forward your link without using Facebook, which I choose to not use for this purpose.
Please allow your links to information to be easily forwarded to others.

Thank you. Susan Lilholt

Senior Director, Marketing & Communications and supporter of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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