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The Department of Science

Posted by Don McLenaghen on May 13, 2012

Well, it looks like we’ve finally done it. It’s a high bar to clear but we made it. What, you may ask? Well, at least in one regard, Canada is more  screwed up than the USA.

I was reading in the Ottawa Herald about the difficulty one reporter had to get a simple interview with a Canadian scientist in the employ of government…well-funded by the National Research Council.

Apparently the reporter Tom Spears heard of some research NASA was doing to measure snow fall. He had learned that NASA had teamed up with Environment Canada, the NRC and several universities to fly through and over falling snow in southern Ontario this winter. It used specialized equipment to analyse falling snow in different weather conditions.

He contacted NASA and was talking to one of the research scientist in “15 min”. Now being a proud Canadian, Spears wanted to get the Canadian angles which he though would be interesting considering the large contribution we had made to the project.

In the USA, he could just contact the scientist directly and conduct an informative interview…Harper put an end to that tom foolery. To talk to a government related scientist (employed by or funded via research grants from agencies like the NRC) in Canada, you have to put in a request with a federal department; which he did. After waiting about 2 days, Spears had to publish without his interview or the information he was hoping to include. He did receive some bland generic talking points and an inventory of the plane.

Curious about how the agency handled his request, he filed a Freedom of Information Request and received over 50 pages dealing with his simple request. The long and the short of it, the lower government agents wanted to arrange an interview promptly but were shot down by more senior management who thought it not appropriate and simply wanted to give a paragraph or 4 about the technical details…i.e. what type of plane, the instruments, etc.

Junior agents pointed out that was not really what the reporter wanted, which it was not, but followed orders. Spear just wanted to ask “So why study snow? Is Ontario snow special? do we have special knowledge on this, what is the state of Canadian snow science?” That sort of thing; he was hoping to place a spot light on our scientists and their work. Spear wrote his story with only a perfunctory nod to the NRC participation and not the human interest or nationalist angle he was hoping for.

In an ironic twist, the document he received mentioned the departments reaction to the published article commenting on how the NRC was only mentioned in passing once and the absence of any mention about the Canadian scientific contribution to the project…but that was okay, the journalist didn’t really want anything more than confirmation of the NRC involvement…which was NOT what he wanted.

As a good skeptic I was both dismayed and alarmed by this story. It seems the default position of our government is to provide as little information as possible. There was no political agenda here, no sensitive or controversial material…it just seemed the bureaucrats, taking their lead from their ruler Harper, thought that the less the people know what the government is doing the better.

This leads to a bigger question…why are we muzzling Canadian scientist?

This is not an isolated event, there have been a number of incidences where the Harper government has directly told scientist to NOT speak to reporters. In fact at a recent Montreal conference, Harper added intimidation to the list of ways to NOT inform the people. Attendees were told NOT to grant interviews and to pass along any request to a ‘press agent’ of the NRC who would arrange things. Also, the NRC ‘press agents’ would record everything said…‘for clarification and reference in case there is a discrepancy between the news story and the official line’.

Since the Conservative government won its majority there has been a constant attack on environmental and regulatory entities both in and out of government. Our scientist are some of the best in the world and have been doing great research into many important areas including a number inconvenient to the Harper agenda – climate change, fish farms, environmental health, etc.

Now there is a great political argument to be made against this erosion of our access to OUR OWN science and scientists…that the Harper government is more secretive than the North Korean politburo but I will put that aside for the moment.

What makes this important for the skeptical community is that to be a good skeptic one must be informed. Scientific skepticism is based on empirical evidence and when that is denied to us we can no longer be assured that the answers we derive or support are authentically rational. The free and open flow of information is (almost?) always the best way to run society ESPECIALLY scientific information. An election is 3 years away…there is little we can do now to reverse this governmental trend but we can ensure people know what Harper et al are doing. We can and must ensure that when Elections 2015 rolls around; WE DO NOT FORGET!

<notes found in Ep 163>

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