Stephen Harper Needs to Stop Gagging Canadian Scientists - 2013-03-14
Betting against science has historically been a pretty poor idea. The only ones willing to throw down in a major way these days are religious fundamentalists and medical quacks. And while it may hurt the rest of us to accept that humans never rode dinosaurs, no-one wants to truck with the sort of people who claim flu shots will make kids autistic, or offer rewards for photos of HIV in an era where scientists are happily shooting movies of HIV being born. There is a more pernicious sort of denialism that doesn't oppose scientific inquiry, but selectively ignores or suppresses the parts of it that might harm its short-sighted goals. This approach is very much alive in Stephen Harper's Canada. Harper had previously become a real darling with environmentalists over his government's willingness to relax environmental regulations and oversight, and side heavily with industry. But he hit a new low with the revelation that his government's restrictive new media policy allowed it to issue gag orders on scientists doing federally funded research, at will.
The first gag order that gained public attention was on Kristi Miller. Miller, a scientist studying salmon for the federal fisheries department, published a report on patterns of salmon mortality in the journal Science. Science, like many high-end journals, sent out press solicitations, 7,400 of them, inviting reporters to contact Miller for comments on her exciting research. Miller was told by the Prime Minister's Privy Council that she was not allowed to provide commentary on her work and was under a general gag order regarding contact with journalists. The official line on this order was that the government didn't want her discussing research in advance of her testimony at a federal inquiry on salmon stock depletion in BC. Fair enough? Oh wait no, that's not fair at all.
Even less justification was given when David Tarasick, a government climate researcher who was attached to a study in the journal Nature detailing a giant, record-breaking, terrifying hole in the ozone layer, was denied contact with reporters. The gag order was later lifted, ostensibly, as Tarasick gave telephone interviews that were subject to government monitoring, and was accompanied by an Environment Canada media officer to scientific conferences.