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Scientists study the unique qualities of sea lamprey antibodies in hopes to develop tools to detect, diagnose and predict the outcome of cancer. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Scientists study the unique qualities of sea lamprey antibodies in hopes to develop tools to detect, diagnose and predict the outcome of cancer. (Moe Doiron/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Editorial

Free Canada's scientists to communicate with the public Add to ...

A scientist’s duty is to science. Researchers must be able to share their findings, and discuss their published work with peers, journalists and the public in a timely manner.

The Conservative government should not be forcing federal government researchers to vet their remarks through a media-relations office to ensure they are “on-message.” There is no justification for blocking or delaying media interviews just because a scientist’s findings come at a politically inopportune moment. As the U.S. moves to set into place clear integrity guidelines for federal science agencies to promote openness with the press, Canada’s move in the opposite direction is all the more surprising.

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Ottawa should respond to the growing controversy – outlined in the prestigious journal Nature – by freeing its scientists. The magazine is calling on the government to show that it will live up to its promise to embrace public access to publicly funded scientific expertise. The issue is serious enough that it was the subject of a panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held last month in Vancouver.

The Canadian Science Writers Association and the World Federation of Science Journalists have also sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, citing examples of researchers being prevented from sharing details about their published work on climate change, natural resources, health, and fisheries and oceans. In the case of studies involving collaborators from other countries, Canada often gets “scooped” by foreign media who are not subject to the same level of bureaucratic interference. That hardly qualifies as celebrating success in science.

Federal scientists must be able to speak not only with their professional peers, but also with the public and with journalists, without vetting and preapproval from communications staff. This is the essence of the scientific process, in which experts exchange information and hold their work up for scrutiny.

If the U.S. can take this approach, surely the Canadian government is capable of the same level of openness.

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