Sci-lenced: A PEN Canada Evening on Scientists’ Freedom of Expression

Wednesday evening, October 17, marked the end of the 2012 edition of PEN Canada’s “Non-Speak Week,” a series of events on the role of freedom of expression in Canada. Together with the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA), PEN had invited a panel composed of Professor Danny Harvey from Department of Geography, University of Toronto, Stephen Strauss, the current President of the Canadian Science Writers Association, and the medical journalist Pippa Wysong. Under the stewardship of moderator Bruce Walsh, the panel explored how recent federal policy changes have muzzled federal scientists.

Canada and science are not words typically associated with infringement to freedom of expression. At the heart of the issue lies the question how scientists at departmental agencies, such as Environment Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, should be allowed to interact with journalists. In many ways the current issue is not much different from the incidents under former US President George W. Bush, which caused much debate south of the border. However, whereas the Obama administration has several steps to facilitate communication between scientists and journalists, the Harper government has been moving in the opposite direction. For example, several American funding agencies have issued new media guidelines, removing the need for journalists to first contact a given communications office. This used to be the situation also in Canada, until new regulations now require journalists to do that very thing.

Panelists shared personal examples of the often Kafka-esque experience of trying to get comments from federal scientists involved in climate change, health, and natural resource research. This process is often so cumbersome that many stories never get written, denying citizens without access to the primary scientific literature a chance to learn about what their tax money is spent on.

A recent troublesome example is a study published in the prestigious journal Science suggesting that the decline in salmon stock in Fraser River, BC, was due to viruses. The study has plenty of management implications, however, the lead author Kristina Miller of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, was forbidden to give interviews by the Privy Council Office (PCO). The PCO also intervened with the Fisheries Departments news release about the study. The panel highlighted several similar examples, noting that for studies co-authored by Canadians and international collaborators, journalists often had a better chance getting in touch and receiving comments from the collaborators.

All panelists also expressed concern over the implications these practices will have for our society. Ultimately, any well functioning democracy requires uninterrupted flow of information. The consequences of a society with muzzled scientists is perhaps best summarized by the chants of the 2000 lab-coat wearing scientists and supporters that marched to Parliament Hill at the Death of Evidence March on July 10 this summer: “No science. No evidence. No truth. No Democracy.”