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Kristi Miller, molecular geneticist in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Nik West)
Kristi Miller, molecular geneticist in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. (Nik West)

Three scientists on the research they couldn’t discuss with media under Harper Add to ...

In the scientific community, Max Bothwell is regarded as the go-to guy on “rock snot,” an unsightly but amusingly nicknamed invasive algae that grows in streams and riverbeds. He’s been an Environment Canada scientist for 36 years, studied the slimy blooms for 22 of those and has published considerable literature on the subject.

So when rock snot – also known by its less fun name of Didymosphenia geminata, or just didymo – grew to be problematic and media interest piqued, Nanaimo-based Dr. Bothwell should have been the go-to expert to explain the phenomenon. Instead, he was told to keep quiet.

Under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, media access to federal scientists like Dr. Bothwell was tightly controlled.

Interview requests were cumbersome processes that involved several communications operatives and usually resulted in pre-approved “media lines” that provided little real information.

That’s changed. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has followed through on its platform promise to “unmuzzle” federal scientists, announcing last week that they are now able to speak freely about their work with the media and public.

“The nightmare is over,” Dr. Bothwell said.

The Globe and Mail spoke with three highly regarded scientists about work they could not previously discuss.

Max Bothwell, research scientist at Environment Canada

For Dr. Bothwell, the most frustrating part of being muzzled was that he’s proud of his work.

Most of the developments coming out of his department are good news, he says, and Environment Canada is leading the world on “this rock snot thing.”

One 2014 request to interview Dr. Bothwell, by Canadian Press reporter Dene Moore, resulted in 110 pages of e-mails to and from 16 federal government communications operatives – but no interview. Brad Taylor, an ecologist at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who co-authored a paper with Dr. Bothwell, was quoted instead.

Dr. Bothwell called the experience “personally frustrating and embarrassing.”

“The way [the muzzling] is received by people like me is that these people don’t value me and they don’t trust me,” he said. “That message came across crystal clear: Scientists are not respected and they are not trusted.”

Rock snot, it turns out, is not a new organism, as initially suspected, but rather a native species responding to environmental changes, Dr. Bothwell said. The gelatinous algae “blooms” are actually an increase in extracellular non-living carbon – dead material, like tree bark – which only occurs when phosphorous levels become too low.

The blooms are not a threat to humans, but they can cause havoc in aquatic ecosystems by changing fish food levels and creating ideal habitats for certain fish parasites. The bigger issue may be why phosphorous levels are declining.

“I list a series of four hypotheses that might explain this, and one of them is climate change,” Dr. Bothwell said.

He added that, for the first time this past summer, rock snot started to bloom in the St. Mary’s River, which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

“What that tells me is that this organism is what I said it was – it is a sentinel species – and it’s telling us that there is something wrong in Lake Superior.”

Dr. Bothwell most recently co-authored a paper, expected to be published next month, on using phosphorous to decrease rock snot blooms.

Kristi Miller, molecular geneticist in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans

When Kristi Miller testified in 2011 at the Cohen Commission of Inquiry into the decline of Fraser River sockeye salmon, she was accompanied by an earpiece-wearing security guard and a communications specialist. The message was clear: There would be no chatting with reporters.

Four years later, Dr. Miller looks back and describes the moment as a “surreal experience.”

“To be that controlled, it almost made you nervous,” she said. “They were almost trying to make you afraid of the public, and afraid of the media.”

Dr. Miller also recalls having to get several levels of approval if she wanted to participate in workshops where the media might be present. Most of these requests were denied. In the rare instances they were approved, a media handler was assigned to accompany her.

“It felt like being treated like a child, to be perfectly honest,” Dr. Miller said. “I found it quite irritating that I wasn’t trusted to communicate the messages from my own work, that the only person who could effectively communicate the messages from my work was a communications expert.”

A four-year-long study led by Dr. Miller had found that there was a specific genomic signature present in salmon that was predictive of whether they would survive the journey to the spawning grounds.

“That was really the first time that we had demonstrated that freshwater environment alone is not a complete explanation for the massive die-offs that were occurring,” she said. “There was something about the condition of the salmon before they entered the river that was exacerbating [conditions for mortality] in the river.”

That mortality-related signature was consistent with a viral infection – which could have posed a threat to the aquaculture industry.

“That’s really what made the government nervous: not the genomics or the precondition, but the hypothesis that that precondition was a disease,” Dr. Miller said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Miller and her team have developed a platform that can screen for dozens of disease-causing microbes – viruses, bacteria, micro-parasites – at once.

“Basically, the full range of microbes that are associated with diseases in salmon worldwide, we can detect them – and we can detect them incredibly quickly,” Dr. Miller said.

“What’s exciting about this is that we are ahead of the curve, even of the human world. You can’t go into a human diagnostic lab and in 24 hours be tested for 45 different pathogens. This is the first time in my career in genomics that I have been ahead of the curve when it comes to human medicine.”

Philippe Thomas, wildlife biologist with Environment Canada

For three years, Philippe Thomas has been studying the health of fur-bearing animals living in the Alberta oil sands. Partnering with hunters, trappers and First Nations communities in the Peace-Athabasca Delta, the federal wildlife biologist has collected the carcasses of more than 1,700 mammals – such as lynxes, muskrats and river otters – caught initially for commercial trapping.

The collection process wound down this past spring; Mr. Thomas is now conducting contaminant analyses on their livers. The research is part of the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, a Canada-Alberta initiative to monitor environmental indicators.

In late 2012, DeSmog Canada sought to interview Mr. Thomas about his research. However, Access to Information documents revealed that the request was bounced around and ultimately denied by Environment Canada, even though the scientist was “media trained and interested in doing the interview.”

Mr. Thomas remembers receiving two interview requests around that time, both of which involved several communications specialists preparing and editing his responses, none of which ultimately seemed to be released.

“I was never kept in the loop with that. We would answer the questions, send them away, they would be edited and sent back to us, and when management and media relations all agreed it was good, you usually wouldn’t hear from them [again].”

Mr. Thomas acknowledges that the idea of “cute, furry animals” dying in the oil patch could have been controversial, had that been the case. But while final results won’t be ready for some time, preliminary data show that contaminant levels are “by no means high,” suggesting wildlife and industry can co-exist.

“In the end, had the interviews been granted, they would have realized that there’s no big story at the moment,” he said. “There’s nothing to report on that’s ground-shattering. The levels I’m detecting are often lower than other parts [of Canada].”

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