Canadian Government Criticized for Restricting Access to Federal Scientists

March 6, 2012 Updated: March 7, 2012

The Canadian government should loosen its grip on federal scientists and their accessibility to the media, says the journal Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific publications.

“It is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free,” reads an editorial published last week by the journal.

The editorial refers to a “reversal” in North America in the interactions between the media and government scientists in the past six years, with the Obama administration easing press access in the U.S. while Ottawa has “moved in the opposite direction.”

“In December, agencies including the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued guidelines that promote openness with the press,” the journal says.

“For instance, NOAA and NSF-funded scientists and staff are free to speak to journalists without first seeking the approval of a public affairs officer.”

In Canada, however, the government has gradually tightened media protocol for federal scientists, the publication says.

“Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak.”

The editorial follows an open letter signed by the Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA), among others, to Prime Minister Stephen Harper last month asking him to “unmuzzle the scientists.”

“Despite promises that your majority government would follow principles of accountability and transparency, federal scientists in Canada are still not allowed to speak to reporters without the ‘consent’ of media relations officers,” the letter reads.

The letter also makes references to cases where government scientists were prevented from discussing published literature with the media.

Cases cited include when Environment Canada prevented researcher David Tarasick from giving interviews about his ozone layer research last fall, and when the Privy Council Office stopped Fisheries and Oceans Canada researcher Kristina Miller from talking to journalists about her findings on the causes of the sockeye salmon decline in B.C.

In response to concerns raised about Miller’s restrictions in talking to media, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield said in a statement last July that the limitation was because of an ongoing inquiry into the decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser River by the Cohen Commission.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service, the union that represents federal scientists, dismissed this reason as “simply a convenient excuse.”

In 2010, Nature also published an editorial by Kathryn O’Hara, president of the CSWA and a professor of science broadcast journalism at Carleton University, asking for more openness and access to government scientists for journalists.

The journal notes in its new editorial that little has changed since then.

“[R]ather than address the matter, the Canadian government seems inclined to stick with its restrictive course and ride out all objections.”

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