A simmering dispute over Canadian government rules on how federal researchers communicate with the public and the press has taken an unexpected turn. Earlier this week, the country's information commissioner, Suzanne Legault, confirmed that she has opened an investigation into whether scientists in seven government departments are being muzzled by senior politicians.
Canadian reporters and government scientists have bristled at communications rules imposed by the Conservative government after Stephen Harper was sworn in as prime minister in February 2006. In particular, they've been unhappy with a policy that requires all federal civil servants and scientists to get permission for press interviews from their minister or the Privy Council Office (Harper's central shop) and that all questions be submitted in advance. Often, interviews with scientists are conducted with a media relations officer in the room or on the phone; if a reporter asks a question that isn't among those submitted in advance, the officer leaps in and precludes the scientist from answering the question. In a recent dictum, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans also required that all department scientists get approval, including sign off on copyright waivers, from senior officials before publishing papers.
In February, such practices prompted two groups—the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria and Democracy Watch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for democratic reform and government accountability—to write to Legault, who holds a position created in 1983 to oversee Canada's Access to Information Act. The groups asked Legault to examine whether the government was systematically obstructing "the right of the media—and through them, the Canadian public—to timely access to government scientists." Such obstruction constitutes a "subtle means of intimidation," the environmental law center argued in a 128-page report called Muzzling Civil Servants: A Threat to Democracy? that it attached to the letter.
In a 27 March response, Legault's office indicated that it has the authority to undertake such a wide-ranging investigation under the law, which empowers the commissioner to hear complaints on broad matters "relating to requesting or obtaining access to records."
Legault's decision to wade into the fray in such a broad manner surprised some scientists, because the office typically investigates narrower issues. But the sheer volume of evidence that has been accumulating in recent years about the extent to which the government is restricting the flow of scientific information to Canadians made it imperative that she undertake an investigation, says Scott Findlay, an associate professor of biology at the University of Ottawa. "I suspect that what we've heard so far is just the tip of the iceberg," he says.
In her letter, Legault wrote that she will investigate whether "government policies and policy instruments, including departmental policies, protocols, guidelines and directives, that are related to communications and media relations and that restrict or prohibit government scientists from speaking with or sharing research with the media and the Canadian public, are impeding the right of access to information." The inquiry will focus on seven agencies: the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the National Research Council of Canada, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, and the departments of Environment, Fisheries and Oceans, National Defence, and Natural Resources.
The government has argued that the communications rules ensure that government employees speak with "one voice." But critics—among them the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the union which represents civil servants, including 23,000 federal scientists—have contended that the policy is tantamount to a gag order.
"Science is about openness, transparency, full disclosure, argumentation, discussion, disagreement," says Jeffrey Hutchings, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "That's how you tease out the bits that make sense and the bits that don't make sense. As soon as you try to cloister and control the communication of science, you're controlling science, which means you're controlling the acquisition of knowledge."
But whether the government is being antiscience or just trying to control the message to avoid potential embarrassment is difficult to ascertain, Hutchings adds. "There's been a clear attempt, and a successful one thus far, to reduce governmental scientific capacity. No question about it. One can only speculate whether it's an ideological issue with science or whether it's the fact that scientists don't toe the line, that scientists communicate objectively the results of their work, with all the warts and wrinkles and bumps that go along with it."
Minister of State for Science and Technology Gary Goodyear was unavailable for comment. Special assistant Stephanie Thomas, however, tells Science Insider that Goodyear has issued a statement noting that "government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public. Last year, Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies."
The timeline on Legault's investigation, or whether a final report will be crafted and submitted to Parliament, is unclear. Those decisions have not yet been made, says Josée Villeneuve, director of public affairs for the commissioner.