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The Black Hole

Science in the federal government

BY BETH | AUG 15 2011

Two recent news stories:

1. Ottawa silences scientist over West Coast salmon study

“Top bureaucrats in Ottawa have muzzled a leading fisheries scientist whose discovery could help explain why salmon stocks have been crashing off Canada’s West Coast, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News.

The documents show the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister’s Office, stopped Kristi Miller from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.”

“The Privy Council Office also nixed a Fisheries Department news release about Miller’s study, saying the release “was not very good, focused on salmon dying and not on the new science aspect,” according to documents obtained by Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.

Miller is still not allowed to speak publicly about her discovery, and the Privy Council Office and Fisheries Department defend the way she has been silenced.

But observers say it is indefensible and more evidence of the way the government is undermining its scientists.” (Vancouver Sun)

2. 700 Environment Canada jobs on the chopping block

“Meteorologists, scientists, chemists and engineers are among more than 700 Environment Canada employees on the chopping block as the department launches sweeping cuts to cope with federal belt-tightening.”
“Corbett said the job losses will badly hurt the ability of the science-based department to do its job on issues such as climate change, monitoring water and air quality and wildlife species.” (Toronto Star)

Both of these stories do not bode well for the state of science in the federal government. Obviously, financial times are tough right now and hard choices need to be made. But cutting a department like Environment Canada so severely that it hampers the ability of the department to do its job makes one wonder about the priority (or lack thereof) that the current government puts on science/evidence-based decision making ((Something we’ve talked about in the past)).

Even more shockingly, in my opinion, is the muzzling of a scientist about her research. Scientific research builds on previous work and open communication is needed to allow a field to flourish. What’s particularly baffling about this one is that this research is published (in the journal Science no less) and that Dr. Miller’s university-based (i.e., not federal government employees) co-authors are able to talk to the media. Thus, it’s not like the scientific information isn’t out there – it’s just out there without the ability of the lead researcher to communicate and clarify it. So, really, what is to be gained by forbidding Dr. Miller from speaking to the media?


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  1. Liz Csaszar / August 16, 2011 at 03:08

    The Canadian government muzzling of scientists communicating their (peer-reviewed and publicly funded) work is definitely worrying. Environment Canada has probably been the worst offender of this, particularly with climate change researchers.
    A Nature News article from last year nicely highlights this issue.
    Nature. 2010 Sep 30;467(7315):501.

  2. Beth / August 16, 2011 at 05:39

    Thanks for sharing that link, Liz!