When science goes silent - 2013-05-03
As far as the government scientist was concerned, it was a bit of fluff: an early morning interview about great white sharks last summer with Canada AM, the kind of innocuous and totally apolitical media commentary the man used to deliver 30 times or more each year as the resident shark expert in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). So he sent an email off to Ottawa notifying department flaks about the request, and when no response had been received by the next morning, just went ahead and did it.
After all, in the past such initiative was rewarded. His superiors were happy to have him grab some limelight for the department and its research, so much so they once gave him an award as the DFO's spokesperson of the year. But as he found out, things have changed under Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Soon after arriving at his offices, the scientist was called before his regional director and given a formal verbal reprimand: talk to the media again without the explicit permission of the minister's office, he was warned, and there would be serious consequences—like a suspension without pay, or even dismissal.
"He can't understand it. The interview was of no consequence and had absolutely no relevance to government policy," says Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union that represents 30,000 government researchers, technicians and science support workers. "It really burst his bubble. They've taken away the impetus to educate the public." Corbett shared details of the incident for the first time with Maclean's but not the scientist's identity, for fear he might face further sanction. It's just one of many such stories of muzzled federal scientists and suppressed research that are being brought to the union's attention, he says. All against the backdrop of sweeping cuts to water, air and wildlife monitoring programs, a total restructuring of federal environmental reviews, and the downloading of responsibility for lakes and rivers to the provinces. "It's almost like this government doesn't want any of this stuff to be open to public discussion," says the union leader. "What we're seeing is a total lockdown."