Tightening the grip: muzzling of scientists ramps up

I had originally intended to write this column about my trip to Washington, DC on February 7-8, when I met with United States Senators and Congresspersons about climate and the Keystone XL pipeline. In brief, the trip was very successful in making links with strong proponents of climate action. Things are moving. The US General Accountability Office had decided that as a threat to federal government finances, climate change is now classed ‘high risk’.

I had planned a media availability session at the unfortunate time of Friday afternoon at 4pm, as it was the only time when I wasn’t busy in meetings. By complete fluke, Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, came to Washington, DC the same day and held a joint press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry at 2pm. Thanks to Minister Baird, my press conference was perfectly timed and a ton of media showed up. In the Twitter world, this could all be explained with #synchronicity.

And further to my last column, President Barack Obama did indeed make climate action a significant part of his State of the Union address. While the Globe and Mail described this as a ‘surprise’, readers of Island Tides were likely not surprised.

Though there is much to share about events in Washington, new developments in the repression of Canadian science are more urgent. ‘Chilling’ is the word that has been used in media reports, and ‘chilling’ it is.

Back in October 2011, I wrote in Island Tides about the muzzling of DFO scientists. The scientist in question, Dr Kristi Miller, had achieved levels of scientific respect as her work on viruses linked to salmon aquaculture operations had been published in the internationally prestigious journal Science. When Science attempted to arrange media interviews with Dr Miller, the Privy Council Office ordered her to refuse.

It seems that the public outcry over that event, and others including ozone scientists at Environment Canada, led the Prime Minister’s Office to decide the contractual arrangements with scientists were too lax. As of February 1 this year, new rules were put in place requiring all scientists working on projects in conjunction with DFO in the Central and Arctic Region to treat all information as proprietary to DFO, and—worse—await departmental approval before submitting research to any scientific journals.

The story was broken by veteran journalist Michael Harris, in the online journal iPolitics. Harris has been one of the few journalists willing to dig into the pervasive repression, slashing of science and rejection of evidence based decision-making in Harper’s Ottawa.

The reaction from DFO was swift. It posted this attack on its website:

‘The iPolitics story by Michael Harris published on February 7th, 2013 is untrue. There have been no changes to the Department’s publication policy.’

Harris recounts that he was stunned. He had verified the change with several scientists, external to DFO. He called Dr Jeff Hutchings at Dalhousie University who re-confirmed the changes. Then Harris received support from an unexpected source—an anonymous DFO scientist posted the email from Michelle Wheatley, the Central and Arctic science director, sent out to detail the new publication policy.

The anonymous scientist wrote, ‘Here is the e-mail I got from my division manager on January 29, 2013: ‘Subject: New Publication Review Committee (PRC) Procedures for C&A Science …’. The email was reproduced in full, and began, ‘This message is regarding the new Publication Review Committee procedures for C&A Science…’

The email noted that the new policy was to take effect on February 1, 2013.

The anonymous scientist concluded: ‘You decide who’s being untruthful.’

A few days after DFO tried to deny that there were any changes, the Vancouver Sun broke the story of a US scientist, doing collaborative work with DFO, who is refusing to sign the new conditions. Calling it a ‘potential muzzle,’ Dr Andreas Muenchow, of the University of Delaware told the Sun, ‘I’m not signing it.’ Muenchow has been working on a project with DFO scientists in the Eastern Arctic since 2003.

In 2003, when the collaborative research project began, there were quite different rules about sharing data: ‘Data and any other project-related information shall be freely available to all Parties to this Agreement and may be used, disseminated or published, at any time.’

Within days of of February 1st’s new publication policy, on February 7, came another DFO email to scientists: now they must obtain prior consent before applying for research grants.

You can see where this is going. It is not enough to muzzle scientists like Dr Miller when their research is published. The tightening of control over science must be established far earlier in the process. Stop the research from being submitted to journals. Stop the scientists from collaborating with others. Stop scientists from applying for research grants. Stop science from happening at all.

The elimination of whole branches of scientific work within the federal government, the slashing of governmental funds for science, and now a departmental veto on applying for research grants or submitting results to peerreviewed journals fits in the larger systemic dismantling of any aspect of governmental activities that could throw doubt on the wisdom of pressing for rapid expansion of fossil fuel exploitation.

‘Chilling’ is one word, but it does not seem adequate to this development. This is the 21st Century equivalent of the Dark Ages. This is book burning and superstition run rampant. This is the administration of a steady, slow drip of poison to a weakening democracy.

Originally printed in the Island Tides.