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Is the Canadian Government muzzling its scientists?


By Hamish Johnston

Back in April, Scott Dallimore of the Geological Survey of Canada did what most scientists can only dream of – he published a paper in the journal Nature.

The work describes a massive flood that occurred about 13,000 years ago when water from an immense glacial lake broke out and hurled towards the Arctic Ocean.

The work was covered in media outlets around the world and Dallimore’s co-authors were quoted widely. Sadly, Dallimore was denied his moment in the Sun because he was effectively prevented from speaking to reporters by his employer, the Canadian Government.

This apparent censorship in Canada is described in a comment piece in today’s edition of Nature by Kathryn O’Hara (pictured above), president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association.

I say “effectively prevented”, because Dallimore could have spoken if the journalist’s questions and his answers were first vetted by the government. However, this can take several days or even months according to science writer Glen Blouin. When combined with Nature‘s embargo policy (which gives journalists only a few days to write their articles), it is unlikely that Dallimore could have been quoted when the story broke.

A quick survey of blogs and comments on this topic suggests that muzzling is not new. What seems to have changed is that scientists are now a target of the government’s information machine.

Why? It could have something to do with the fact that the current prime minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party have strong connections to the province of Alberta – a major oil producer and home to the controversial oil sands.

Years ago when I was in high school we were taught that Alberta is sitting on top of the world’s largest oil reserve – and we only had to wait until the price of oil was high enough to make extraction from the oil sands viable.

30 years on and we have reached that price point, but concerns about vast carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental issues have made the oil sands a political hot potato.

I’m guessing that there are some in Alberta and in Ottawa who want to make sure that government scientists don’t spoil the long-awaited bonanza.

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  1. Josh

    Non sequitur. How does it follow from a scientist needing pre-approval to comment on a story about a paper he wrote about flooding that the Canadian government is captive to the Alberta oil industry? Maybe there is a connection, but you didn’t make it in your piece.

  2. DennisA

    Why would this paper about the glacial lake be a threat to the oil sands? It surely demonstrates that CO2 is not the demon it is portrayed to be.
    Imagine if such an event were to occur now. It would immediately be ascribed to CO2 emissions and seen as direct evidence that we should cut our emissions immediately to save the planet. As far as I know there were no SUV’s 13,000 years ago.

  3. darkos

    To previous comments: The ban is not on this scientist alone, but on all of them.

  4. Imre von Soos

    The main problem is not why the/a government – or any kind of organization – muzzles, but that it can muzzle at all.
    “The state exists for man, not man for the state. – wrote Albert Einstein – The same may be said of science. These are old phrases, coined by people who saw in human individuality the highest human value. I would hesitate to repeat them, were it not for the ever recurring danger that they may be forgotten, especially in these days of organization and stereotypes.”
    This kind of subjects are coming up in discussions more an more often. Thank you, Hamish Johnston, for riding on them.

  5. Jef Simpson

    The minority government of Canada headed by Conservative politician Stephen Harper believes in top-down decision-making and PM Harper is absolutely certain that there is nobody in Canada better able to speak about Canadians and Canada than himself. A fundamentalist Christian in his beliefs, he places the problems confronting the environment very low on his ‘to-do’ list. His government has been muzzling scientists #for whatever reason known only to him# since being elected. Even his cabinet ministers must receive his blessing before speaking with the media. He is a very competent strategist and there are no boundaries he will not cross in order to achieve his goals. For a good review of PM Harper read ‘Harperland’. If you admired the last USA president #George W. Bush# you will also admire Stephen Harper. The muzzling of scientists is necessary in case anyone treads on his beliefs. One of his cabinet ministers, Stockwell Day, believes the world was created 6,000 years ago. That will give you an idea of why scientists are muzzled in Canada. James Cameron, the very successful film director of Avatar, recently journeyed to the province of Alberta #known in the rest of Canada as Extremistan# to see the Tar sands. PM Harper was not able to muzzle him and he had much to say. Thank you.

  6. Josh

    Forgive my ignorance of how the Canadian government works, but in America (at least in my state, California, which is hardly conservative) ANY individual working on government research, whether scientific, economic, etc. is going to have to get permission to talk to the press in their official capacity (I’m assuming that if this project hadn’t been funded by the government, the ban on speaking to the press without permission wouldn’t apply). Was this the practice of previous Canadian governments, or is it something new to this government? And I still don’t see how you can specifically claim it is connected it to the oil industry, or any other scientific issue if the ban is government-wide. If no previous government did it, then you can say Harper is unnecessarily heavy-handed or controlling, but you still haven’t made a plausible case that it is related to any specific issue. As for the last commenter, I don’t think claiming that Harper’s religious beliefs are the reason for this policy shows anything but your own personal bigotry.

  7. Jef Simpson

    I do apologize if I did not make myself clear in my first post. The question for the bloggers is ‘Does the Canadian government muzzle its scientists?’ The evidence of the last four years of the Harper minority government is that they have done so and continue to do so.
    I am not religious bigot. I am a happy atheist who regards all regligion with the same amount of respect. I mentioned PM Harper’s religious affiliation because it definitely helps in understanding his mistrust of scientists and science.
    Previous Liberal and Conservative governments in Canada have occasionally attempted to muzzle its employees but none have been as successful and openly aggressive in doing so as this present minority government. The aggressiveness is openly discussed in mainstream media in Canada
    Canada has a ‘Charter of Rights’ for its citizens and freedom of speech is a highly treasured part of it. Canadian scientists may speak for themselves at all times without interference from the government unless the issue under discussion relates to national security in some significant way.
    Thanks again for the opportunity to be involved in this discussion. Jef #Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada#


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