Ask Canadian Scientists Why You Can't Ask Them About Science

Experience the frustration of dealing with a government intent on keeping its science under wraps with this new letter writing campaign.

Mar 24 2015, 2:15pm

Image: greg westfall/Flickr

A coalition of journalists and academics is urging Canadians to write letters to government scientists, asking for data on pollution, global warming, and other federal research. They may not get much in response—but that's precisely the point.

The week-long letter writing campaign, which began on Monday and is called Write2Know, is a protest of the government's controversial practice of controlling access to both science and scientists—a policy that has never been officially codified, but has been enforced by government agencies for the past half-decade.

Typically, requests sent to federal scientists by members of the public are instead directed to a media relations officer who determines how much access will be allowed. Sometimes interviews will be granted, while in other cases, the officer determines that a number of questions will be approved and passed on to the scientist via email. Scientists may have their responses cut and edited before being released.

The government's media strategy isn't clearly defined, and the extent of these muzzling tactics have mainly been pieced together from leaked reports and scores of denied or stalled information requests. But it appears that anyone, inside or outside Canada, attempting to communicate with a Canadian federal scientist for anything other than a scientific project, is subject to this oversight.

"If a journalist or academic writes to a scientist to ask for information they encounter these barriers. We want to walk people through the steps of inquiry to get the same response or non-response we would get," said Dr. Natasha Myers, director of York University's Institute for Science and Technology Studies, and one of the primary organizers of the Write2Know campaign.

From March 23-27, those who write letters will get to experience the frustration of dealing with a government intent on keeping its own research and data under wraps—when it isn't doing everything it can to shut down the production and storage of data by cutting jobs and research funding, and closing libraries and archives across the country.

Journalists first noticed the walls that had been erected around federal scientists when media officers began limiting access in 2008. A pair of high profile incidents a few years later, in which climate change and fisheries data was withheld, sparked widespread outrage, and outraged letters: journalists wrote an open letter; academics wrote an open letter; foreign scientists wrote an open letter; and yet nothing about the policy has changed.

Writing a letter to the Harper government is like writing a letter to Santa: it's unlikely it'll ever get read and you just have to hope you get what you want. They're also both really into arctic industrialization.

But the organizers of the Write2Know campaign say that their campaign differs from previous appeals launched by professional bodies in a very important way. "For us it begins with a public," Dr. Myers said. "The reason we're doing this as a letter writing campaign is precisely because we want to generate a public that is interested and informed enough to engage with research."

Participants are encouraged to sign their name to pre-written letters to scientists and government employees. One letter asks about the whereabouts of data that was reportedly lost or destroyed when the government shuttered Fisheries Department archives. Another requests data on pollutants in water around Canada's notorious tar sands. The campaign also has its eye on issues that the professional bodies haven't already addressed like the disproportionate effect of arctic pollutants on indigenous communities and cuts to aboriginal health research.

There is also an option to modify an existing letter, and a directory of federal scientists organized by research interest is available for those who wish to write an entirely new request. The project will track and report on whatever responses are given.

The hope is that, with enough letters, questions may finally be answered—or, the stalling, obfuscation, and silence organizers expect in response to each letter will further demonstrate how bad transparency and communication has become in Canada. But at the very least, Dr. Myers hopes that the exercise will encourage citizens to approach and interact with scientists whose work affects or interests them.

"We want to be in support of scientists, but we also want to see the public engaged in much deeper, more critical ways," she said, noting that, "to do this, we first need access to scientists."

Organizers of the Write2Know campaign hope to attract a thousand signatures on each of their eight letters. It's unclear whether their campaign will find success where others have found only silence—for the Harper government, a thousand "no's" may be just as easy as one—but with an election scheduled for October, the current government may well be more likely to respond to the public than the experts.