The Canadian government under Harper hasn’t–yet–abandoned science in its entirety. After all, science is still the best means we have of discovering reality, and reality is useful when setting policy, even if you choose to ignore it. What they’re doing instead is making sure that the Canadian people don’t have access to the same science they do.
Last year, Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association, wrote an extraordinary letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the leaders of the other national parties.
In that document – remarkable because it was written in a leading democracy not a paranoid dictatorship – she pleaded with government to unshackle its scientists by allowing them to speak freely with the media.
The CSWA represents more than 500 science journalists, publicists and authors in Canada. Ms. O’Hara recounted a series of incidents that occurred during the year leading up to her letter in which requests for interviews with researchers had been bluntly refused by public affairs handlers, or thwarted by them through endless bureaucratic delays.
Kristina Miller, a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who has done groundbreaking work on emerging salmon diseases on the West Coast, was one of those who was denied permission to talk to the media, even though her research had just been published in the prestigious international journal, Science.
The government’s stifling of Dr. Miller was so extreme that she was even told by DFO officials not to attend workshops at which experts were discussing salmon issues, out of fear media might attend and hear what she had to say.
So, what can you do about it? Well, that’s a pretty good question. If you’re Canadian, you could try complaining to the Harper administration directly. However, they have their majority, and they’re pretty comfortable with it. A better strategy might be to go to your (particularly conservative) MPs and let them know that you’re not going to be as complacent in the next election as you were in the last (however complacent or not you were then). Being kept in ignorance by your government hinders democracy, and they should know you expect them not to support any policy that is so blatantly undemocratic. A majority can be divided.
If you’re press, by whatever definition, find other ways to report these findings when they’re published. Canadian scientists have colleagues outside the country who will also be able to provide insights on published papers. And when you report, don’t leave out the fact that you’re not talking to the author(s) of the paper only because the government insists that they control access to these people.
If you’re a Canadian government scientist and you don’t already work with people both outside of government agencies and outside of Canada, it’s time to start. Make sure others can competently and publicly spread the word about your work when you can’t. Scientific collaboration isn’t something the Harper administration can control, not without an even bigger fight than this will bring.
None of these will be a magic bullet to keep information flowing freely, but all of them will help, and all of them will be strikes at Harper’s anti-democratic policy.