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onw COLUMNISTS

Muzzling Science Is A Poor Way to Govern


By Peter Russell

Last week brought news that Canada’s Information Commissioner, Suzanne Legault, was launching an investigation of seven federal departments for allegedly “muzzling” scientists.

This is the latest chapter in a long and troubling story that has been building up through the Harper years.

In the early days of the Harper government,  the Minister of the Environment ordered Mark Tushingham, one of its climatologists, to stay away from a National Press Club lunch  at which his science fiction novel would be discussed.

Soon after that, Environment Canada adopted a media relations protocol with the aim of ensuring “one department, one voice.”

An early casualty of that protocol was Scott Dallimore, who was forbidden to speak to journalists about an article on a flood 13,000 years ago which he had published in the prestigious journal, Nature.

This muzzling of government-employed scientists has by no means been confined to Environment Canada.

In 2011, following the Japanese earthquake and nuclear plant melt-down, Health Canada refused media requests for data from radiation monitors the Department runs.

The information came out anyway when an Austrian team was able to get the Canadian data from a global network of radiation monitors.

But it shows how anal Canada’s government can be in allowing their scientists to communicate with Canadians.

Denying public and media access to the work of its scientists seems to be part and parcel of the federal government’s obsession with centralized control of every bit of information about government that the public is permitted to receive.

One government, one message is the mantra.

Modern business corporations follow the same style of government.

They maintain large public relations departments which, like the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa, do everything possible to stay on message and ensure that there is only one message. I am sure their scientists are muzzled too.

But the difference is that government employed scientists are paid by us, the tax-payers.

In that sense they are “our scientists”.

Moreover they are doing science for the public good, not to maximize company profits or votes for the governing party.

When they are muzzled, we do not know the science on which government is basing its decisions.

The Harper government has also been muzzling science in another way.

When the decision is taken to make the long census form voluntary, or to stop funding the experimental lakes research station in northwest Ontario, no scientists are prevented from publishing their findings.

There just won’t be any reliable and useful findings to publish.

In the case of the census, this means that the continuity of reliable data about social and economic demographic trends in Canada is lost.

Neither independent scholars nor government decision-makers will have the information required to assess the changing needs of our people.

Only government has the authority to collect that information and our government, unlike most in the western world, shirked its responsibility to exercise that authority.

Similarly, in terminating funding for the scientists working in the experimental lakes on measuring the long-term impact of emitting various toxic wastes into fresh water, our country is denied the knowledge needed to safeguard one of Canada’s most precious resources, its fresh water.

It seems highly unlikely that private sector funding can be found for research that might result in calling for restraints on industrial activities and products.

In a democracy, science shouldn’t govern, but neither should government muzzle science.

Often science has good news for us – new inventions, new drugs, new knowledge about our universe.

But sometimes scientists, capable scientists working with honesty and integrity, must have troubling news for us, warning us to slow down or stop doing something that we didn’t realize may have deleterious consequences for ourselves and our planet.

Muzzling science means that we will not be governed intelligently – and that can never be a good thing.

About Peter Russell

Peter H. Russell is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is one of Canada’s leading constitutional scholars, has published widely in the fields of aboriginal policy, the judiciary and parliamentary democracy, and is a frequent commentator on Canadian government and politics. He is the founding Principal of Senior College at the University of Toronto. Peter Russell is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.
Posted date : April 10, 2013

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