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Information Commissioner of Canada Suzanne Legault responds to a question during a news conference after the tabling in Parliament of the special report, Report Cards 2011-2012, Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)
Information Commissioner of Canada Suzanne Legault responds to a question during a news conference after the tabling in Parliament of the special report, Report Cards 2011-2012, Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Globe Editorial: First Take

Information commissioner right to investigate ‘muzzling’ of scientists Add to ...

It’s good news that the federal Office of the Information Commissioner is launching an investigation into the alleged muzzling of Canadian scientists by officials in their departments. The clamour over the issue has only been getting louder, and continued inaction could have damaged Canada’s reputation in scientific circles.

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The Information Commissioner has agreed to a request sent in February asking her to investigate what was termed as “the federal government’s policies and actions to obstruct the right of the public and the media to speak to government scientists.” According to the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Clinic and Democracy Watch, who jointly filed the complaint and made the request for an investigation, the Harper government “has implemented new policies that routinely require political approval before scientists can speak to the media about their scientific findings.”

In particular, the complaint states that the departments of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Environment Canada are all under orders that prevent federal scientists from speaking freely about climate change, the oil sands, the protection of polar bears and caribou, and other sensitive topics without prior approval. A well-documented report attached to the complaint lists a number of instances when “scientists have been prevented from sharing their taxpayer-funded research with the media and the Canadian public”; it includes one episode where Environment Canada scientists were told they could not talk to reporters at the International Polar Year 2012 conference in Montreal without department approval, and media relations personnel shadowed the scientists to ensure compliance.

The respected British science journal Nature was so alarmed by the government’s policies that in February of 2012 it took the unusual step of publishing an editorial criticizing “the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists.” And last month, The Economist published an article about the Harper government’s “comical excesses in communication control” after the department of Fisheries and Oceans tried to impose confidentiality restrictions on a joint Arctic research project involving the University of Delaware. A complaint from an American scientist prompted Ottawa to rethink its onerous confidentiality stipulations.

Scientists working in federal departments are doing vital research at a time when climate change in particular, and the environment in general, are critical issues for Canadians. The Harper government is a strong supporter of the country’s resource industries, which adds even more urgency to the need to make public all available government studies, positive or negative. Above all, Canadian scientists need to be able to share their findings with international colleagues. Scientific research is of little value without publication. The Information Commissioner was correct to launch an investigation.

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