Saturday, February 18, 2012

Muzzling the messengers

The Canadian government has been accused of "muzzling" its scientists. Speakers at a major science meeting being held in Canada said communication of vital research on health and environment issues is being suppressed. The allegation of "muzzling" came up at a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting to discuss the impact of a media protocol introduced by the Conservative government shortly after it was elected in 2008. The protocol requires that all interview requests for scientists employed by the government must first be cleared by officials. A decision as to whether to allow the interview can take several days, which can prevent government scientists commenting on breaking news stories. Sources say that requests are often refused and when interviews are granted, government media relations officials can and do ask for written questions to be submitted in advance and elect to sit in on the interview.

Andrew Weaver, an environmental scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, described the protocol as "Orwellian". The protocol states: "Just as we have one department we should have one voice. Interviews sometimes present surprises to ministers and senior management. Media relations will work with staff on how best to deal with the call (an interview request from a journalist). This should include asking the programme expert to respond with approved lines." Professor Weaver said that information is so tightly controlled that the public is "left in the dark" and "The only information they are given is that which the government wants, which will then allow a supporting of a particular agenda," he said.

Prof Thomas Pedersen, a senior scientist at the University of Victoria, said he believed there was a political motive in some cases. "The Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won't be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship," he said. "I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don't discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is."

Margaret Munro, who is a science writer for Postmedia News she said its effect was to suppress scientific debate on issues of public interest. "The more controversial the story, the less likely you are to talk to the scientists. They (government media relations staff) just stonewall. If they don't like the question you don't get an answer. You have a government that is micromanaging the message, obsessively. The Privy Council Office (which works for the Prime Minister, Stephen Harper) seems to vet everything that goes out to the media"

With scientific knowledge reputedly doubling every twelve months people tend to be intimidated by science, with little choice but to place reliance upon experts. Allowing capitalist priorities and capitalist political structures - such as the government's hierarchy to control what information is released to the population under its rule is a danger to humanity, and to the planet. The politics of the environment raises many questions, not least of which is what the facts are about the state of our planet and how they should be interpreted, yet much of the data and information is concealed by vested interests. The real decisions that influence the world are made in secret and it is because we live in a society where the interests of the class that own the corporations and companies reign supreme.

There is a need for open democratic, social control of how the resources of our planet are managed. The public understanding of science empowers individuals and enables informed debate.

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