To Stephen Harper – Set your scientists free

Posted on March 5, 2012

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Government certified scientific communication protocol device.

The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

That statement—a clarion call if ever one was sounded, Gabriel—comes from an unusually sober source.  It’s the concluding words of an editorial titled “Frozen Out–Canada’s government should free its scientists to speak to the press, as its US counterpart has” in the March 1st edition of the scientific journal Nature.

Now, Nature, together with rarified company like Science or Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for instance, ranks among the most esteemed of refereed scientific journals.  Its standards are rigorous.  To publish in it is accordingly über-prestigious in scientific circles.  It is the type of journal which clings jealously to the highest standards and ideals of science.  And, of course, being a journal and, oh yes, understanding science, it takes seriously the principle that science progresses through free and open discourse.

Which is exactly what the government of Stephen Harper is trying to shut down in Canada, introducing Charles Dickens’ principle of the Circumlocution Office into Canadian science communication, consequently reducing public discussion of, for instance, climate change by its scientists by as much as 80%.  (Climate science.  Now why would Harper’s government want to silence discussion of climate science?  That’s an tarry problem, Stephen.)

Writes Nature:

Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

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Nature‘s news reporters, who have an obvious interest in access to scientific information and expert opinion, have experienced directly the cumbersome approval process that stalls or prevents meaningful contact with Canada’s publicly funded scientists. Little has changed in the past two years: rather than address the matter, the Canadian government seems inclined to stick with its restrictive course and ride out all objections.

The American American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes the journal Science) had a convention recently in Vancouver, Canada.  That convention earlier resulted in the release of an open letter to Stephen Harper by scientists and science journalists discussing the same matter.  See here.  Clearly scientific suppression and censorship is not a minor issue in the minds of any part the scientific community.

Writes Nature:

With the country taking centre stage as the meeting’s host, the Harper government found its media policies in the international spotlight. Scientists and other visitors from around the globe discovered, to their surprise, that Canada’s generally positive foreign reputation as a progressive, scientific nation masks some startlingly poor behaviour. The way forward is clear: it is time for the Canadian government to set its scientists free.

Which is where we came in.

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See the original Nature editorial here: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v483/n7387/full/483006a.html