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Senior federal scientists have to obtain permission to speak publicly, but rarely allowed to

Muzzling of scientists responsible for cod fishery collapse, salmon stock decline.

Schindler had to leave government service to speak without penalitesby Dr. David Schindler

In response to an article printed in several newspapers regarding new rules introduced by the Harper government in 2007 that effectively prevents senior government scientists from Environment Canada from speaking publicly about issues of concern, one scientist who left public service so that he could be more effective, wrote a letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen, published here with his permission.

The Ottawa Citizen. Letter to the editor, by David Schindler - Friday, March 19, 2010

Re: Climate-change scientists feel 'muzzled': documents, March 15

This article reveals the silencing of federal government scientists, an important but chronic problem that must be fixed.

As a former public servant, I have experienced first-hand the attempts by federal bureaucrats to silence their senior scientists on matters that they believe might cast federal ministers or official government positions in an unfavorable light. Such muzzling occurred under Conservative and Liberal administrations, at least as far back as the Mulroney government.

Political muzzling of scientists is largely responsible for the demise of the cod fishery, and has played an important part in the decline of salmon stocks in western rivers. It has weakened policies for control of environmental problems ranging from environmental contaminants to endangered species.

  "It is clear that muzzling under the Harper government is the most oppressive in the history of federal government science. Incredibly, some of the most eminent scientists in Canada have been forbidden to speak publicly on scientific matters where they are recognized as world experts, ranging from climate change to pollution of lakes and rivers."

It is one of the reasons why I, and many other scientists, left the federal government for universities, where we can speak publicly about our scientific findings without penalties.

I continue to collaborate closely with fellow scientists in several federal departments, including Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada, and occasionally others. My colleagues in these departments have reported increased restrictions on them in the past two years, similar to those described in the news story.

It is clear that muzzling under the Harper government is the most oppressive in the history of federal government science. Incredibly, some of the most eminent scientists in Canada have been forbidden to speak publicly on scientific matters where they are recognized as world experts, ranging from climate change to pollution of lakes and rivers. Instead, the public is referred to media-savvy spin doctors, who usually know very little about the science of these topics, spouting the party line.

This is not a trivial matter. The taxpayers pay the salaries and research expenses of federal scientists, and it is we who should benefit directly from the knowledge that they produce, not politicians and spin doctors who wish to shape our minds and federal policies in a science vacuum. Only a well-informed electorate can make decisions that are well grounded in both science and the needs of a democratic society.

We must demand the immediate repeal of political muzzling policies that prevent government scientists from communicating directly with Canadian citizens or the media on matters of national and international importance.

D. W. Schindler
Edmonton
Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology
University of Alberta

David Schindler is Killam Memorial Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. He founded and directed the Experimental Lakes Project of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans near Kenora, Ontario, conducting interdisciplinary research on the effects of eutrophication, acid rain, radioactive elements and climate change on boreal ecosystems. His work has been widely used in formulating ecologically sound management policy in Canada, the USA and in Europe. His current research interests include the study of fisheries management in mountain lakes, the biomagnification of organochlorines in food chains, effects of climate change and UV radiation on lakes, and global carbon and nitrogen budgets.

Dr. Schindler teaches limnology, the philosophy, sociology and politics of science/science and public policy in Canada, and environmental decision making.

Links and sources
  Dr. Schindler page University of Alberta School of Energy and the Environment site

Posted: March 23, 2010

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