Canada

Canada's Muzzled Scientists Can Speak Freely Again, So I Called a Few Up

For the first time in nearly a decade, I spoke to a Canadian government scientist directly, without asking the government first.

Stephen Buranyi

Stephen Buranyi

It used to be easier to speak with foreign scientists studying Canada's arctic than Canada's own. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr

Canada's new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was only sworn on November 4, but his government has already taken steps to address one of its predecessor's most toxic legacies: the so called "muzzling" of government scientists.

Last Friday, scientists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported that they had been told they were allowed to speak to the media about their research without restrictions. And later in the day the newly appointed Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, suggested that the restrictive policies of the previous government were ending.

"Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect. That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public," he is quoted as saying in a statement released by his office.

If things are really changing, we should be able to hear it from the scientists themselves—so I called scientists in several government departments who were at the center of muzzling controversies over the past ten years. In many cases it was the first time they've been able to speak about their research and experiences publicly since the previous government came into power in 2006.

"I got a phone call from my boss saying, pick up the phone Max, you can talk to anyone about your science"

"I'm really pleased to talk to you, and it's so good to be back," said Dr. Max Bothwell, an Environment Canada researcher, who I reached at his office on Vancouver Island.

It's the first time in nearly a decade I've been able to speak with a Canadian government scientist directly, on the telephone, without spending days or weeks clearing the request through a media officer and submitting a list of questions for editing and approval.

In 2014 The Canadian Press tried to ask about a paper Dr. Bothwell published on Didymosphenia geminata, a species of algae wreaking havoc in Canadian waterways, but the interview was refused by Environment Canada. Document's obtained by journalists through Access to Information requests showed that there were 110 pages of emails amongst 16 different communications officers discussing the request—and Dr. Bothwell, as if behind glass, was arguing with them about interview scripts and approved statements, trying to get his answers out.

During our conversation Dr. Bothwell made reference to the "nightmare" being over. After Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister, he heard about Fisheries scientists being given the permission to speak in the news, and emailed around Environment Canada looking for an answer. "I got a phone call from my boss saying, pick up the phone Max, you can talk to anyone about your science," he said.

Dr. Kristi Miller heard the news directly from her manager before the rest of Fisheries and Oceans Canada; they anticipated the press would be calling her. After Dr. Miller was restricted from speaking about her 2011 paper on declining salmon stocks, published in the journal Science, her case became perhaps the most cited example of muzzling, and one of the few cases reported outside of Canada.

Dr. Bothwell studies Didymosphenia geminata, also known as "rock snot," a type of snot-like looking algae. Image: Drew Brayshaw/Flickr

She recalls that during the Harper years how things went from bad to worse. "Over time the limitations kept growing and there would be more and more bureaucracy to go through to speak to the media—starting with only answering questions provided in writing, and getting so bad that the communications people would write the answers," she told me.

But now that they can speak openly, both scientists are more interested in talking about their current research than their silent past (though Dr. Miller says there's a joke going around her office that Trudeau may reverse the muzzling decision once everyone realizes how boring scientists are).

Dr. Miller is working on a large scale genomic platform that will test fish for a huge number of fish disease agents at once and compare populations worldwide. "We usually look for technology that's used in the human medical arena first, this is the first time in my twenty year career that we're ahead of the human medical world," she explained.

As for Dr. Bothwell, he's found some surprising things about the "invasive" algae he studies. "I'm partially responsible for labelling it as invasive in the first place, but it's not true. It's a native organism in Canada, and it's always been here," he said. Dr. Bothwell went on to say that the massive blooms of D. geminata in Canadian rivers are actually caused by changing nutrient conditions—namely, low phosphorous levels.

"This is exactly the opposite of what I've been studying, what people in my field have been studying, for years, and that's that algal blooms are caused by high phosphate conditions," he explained, noting that in a soon-to-be released paper he investigates reducing algal bloom by adding phosphorus.

Just a week ago it would have been nearly impossible to ask a scientist about their day-to-day work

Both conversations reminded me that, not only do scientists love talking about their work, but the work is much easier to understand when you can speak directly to the scientist, ask follow-up questions, and engage with the minutia.

To really test this minutia I call Scott Dallimore, a Natural Resources Canada geologist who was prevented from speaking about a paper he authored, even though it was about a flood that happened 13,000 years ago. Dallimore studies coastal geology permafrost in the arctic, but I'm interested in what he did yesterday.

"I was on a boat," he told me, "testing a new marine geophysical system for mapping shallow water. It's related to arctic research on coastal stability."

It's a silly request, but just a week ago it would have been nearly impossible to ask a scientist about their day-to-day work. Those timelines didn't exist. And while it's still early days, science advocates are impressed with what the new government has already accomplished, and are hoping that access will remain open for more important questions in the future.

"This was one of their first actual acts since being sworn in and it's a huge step in the right direction," said Katie Gibbs, executive director of Evidence for Democracy, a group that promotes public interest science. "We really want to get that right actually enshrined either in a new communication policy or even better, in the scientists collective agreements."

Her point serves as a reminder that despite the open phone lines, no-one is sure what exactly the new rules are. According to employees, Fisheries and Oceans Canada held meetings on Friday telling scientists they were allowed to take questions from the media about their research. When asked about specific rules and where the order came from, a spokesperson sent me a copy of Minister Bains' statement (however, Minister Bains is not directly responsible for Fisheries and Oceans).

Environment Canada didn't inform all its employees, but scientists I spoke with said their managers are aware that media calls should be put directly through. A spokesperson said the directive was announced on Friday, and that official policy is currently under review. They also linked to Minister Bains' statement.

Natural Resources Canada, when asked about policy changes, simply said that "the department is committed to being open and transparent with its science, and is currently looking at ways to better communicate its science to the public."

Clearly, there's a lot of work that remains to done before this becomes official policy. And, as Gibbs and the scientists I spoke to point out, ensuring open communication with scientists is only the first step. Muzzling received a huge amount of media coverage, but the most damaging legacy of the Harper years are the budget cuts and program closures that put thousands of scientists out of work.

During the run-up to the election the Liberals staked a claim as the pro-science party, promising to address some of the budgetary damage of the past decade. Here's hoping the rapid and scattered rollout of press freedoms signals an enthusiasm to move quickly on all their promises. Being able to talk to scientists is great, but restoring their ability to do science will really give them something to talk about.

Correction, Nov. 13: An earlier version of this article stated that Prime Minister Trudeau was sworn in on November 6, when in fact, Trudeau's swearing in ceremony was held on November 4. This story has since been updated, and we very much regret the error.