Canadian Federal Scientists Can Now "Speak Freely" To The Media

The previous conservative government was highly criticized for gagging federal scientists, especially those whose work related to climate change. Shuhan/Shutterstock

The new Liberal government in Canada has been highly praised for what many are calling the restoration of science in the country. As well as appointing a Minister of Science and Minister for Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, the new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also dropped the convoluted and highly criticized system of communications policies that federal scientists were forced to undergo before they were allowed to speak to the media. Even if they were granted permission, they could only talk in a highly controlled way.

“Our government values science and will treat scientists with respect,” said the newly appointed Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, in a statement. “That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public. We are working to make government science fully available to the public and will ensure that scientific analyses are considered in decision making.”

It was under the previous Conservative government that federal scientists were gagged, in a move mainly aimed at avoiding criticism over extractive industries. They were banned from talking freely to the media and were subjected to strict communications policies that forced them to go exclusively through media officers who would then decide not only which questions they could answer, but who would also have a final say on their responses. Certain subjects were firmly off limits, such as climate change or the Alberta oil sands, a vast crude oil reserve.

But it wasn’t just research deemed “controversial” that was affected. According to Steve Campana, a Canadian biologist who used to work for the government and was only allowed to talk to CBC News once he had retired, even research as benign as discovering new ways to age a lobster, which could have applications to the fishing industry, could not be publicized or talked about. Another – anonymous – federal scientist told Motherboard earlier this year how her own research was often misrepresented and that the media officers made her look like an idiot for not letting her answer questions she knew the answers to.

Sworn in as the new prime minister last week, Justin Trudeau made it part of his campaign to “unmuzzle” government scientists. In one of his first acts of taking office, he created the post of Minister of Science, and appointed Kirsty Duncan, a medical geographer at the University of Toronto, to take up the position. He also named Navdeep Bains as the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, and is expected to name a chief science advisor. It seems that scientists will be able to breathe, and speak, a lot more easily now.     

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