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Great Lakes conference hit by Ontario election sensitivities

Lake Superior at Pukaskwa National Park, Canada

An Ontario government scientist had to cancel his talk on invasive species at an international research conference last week because the province's Ministry of Natural Resources determined the content of his presentation should not be made public during the provincial election campaign.

It was one of two talks by Ontario government employees that the ministry confirms it cancelled. The cancellations came on short notice, organizers said, as more than 600 scientists gathered in Hamilton last week for the annual meeting of the International Association of Great Lakes Researchers.

The meeting, which brings together a broad spectrum of researchers who study the Great Lakes waterway, is the largest and most important in the field. Its location alternates each year between Canada and the United States. This year's meeting included several talks and posters by scientists or other staff in science-related positions employed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment.

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But Jeff Brinsmead, a biologist with the biodiversity branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources, was told not to present his talk on a technique for improving invasive species forecasting and management. Other staff at the ministry could not participate in a joint presentation related to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement. In both cases, the provincial election was cited as a reason.

Jolanta Kowalski, a spokesperson for the ministry, said that during the writ period (after an election has been called) the ministry is in "caretaker mode" so the talks could not proceed.

"One of the elements of the caretaker role is that the public service remain neutral and not discuss policy initiatives, activities or decisions of the government or ministries," she said.

The cancellations meant that another presenter, a data management officer with the Ministry of the Environment, could not speak about an improved methodology for estimating Ontario water consumption in the Great Lakes basin, although she still attended the conference. Five other employees with the Ministry of the Environment presented as scheduled. Ministry of Natural Resources staff went ahead with eight other presentations.

Ms. Kowalski said the decision about which presentations were to be cancelled was a matter left to the deputy minister. That position is currently held on an interim basis by Tracey Mill, previously the assistant deputy, who stepped into the role on April 18.

It is not clear how the requirement to maintain caretaker status was applied to specific topics related to Great Lakes research or whether the speakers could have modified their talks to deliver them in a policy-neutral manner instead of cancelling them.

The decision to cancel the talks was not compelled by a particular rule within government, Ms. Kowalski said, but by "long-standing convention followed in Ontario" about the caretaker role. However, the ministry did not say if Ontario scientists have ever been told not to speak during previous elections.

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"This is very unusual," said Megan Park, a senior campaigns officer with the Ontario Public Service Employees Union which represents most of the scientists employed by the Ontario government. "We hope government of Ontario scientists weren't muzzled."

The cancellations illustrate an additional obstacle that government scientists can face when it comes to interacting with colleagues – an activity that is widely considered to be essential to productive research.

Jérôme Marty, past president of the association, said travel restrictions and austerity measures have lately taken a toll on government scientists on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border, leading to fewer of them attending the annual meeting.

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