Shut up, Science

The impact of censorship in science research on our democracy

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION is the root of the twins of Enlightenment: Science and Democracy. The essence of science is the freedom to question any dogma, the freedom to discover truth. And that right to question lies at the core of democracy. Without the freedom to exchange information among all people, how can political debate in a democracy have any hope? It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the dissemination of information and the right to free enquiry of our political system.

And yet, Canadians sanction the censorship of science by their silence. Before we look in the mirror, let’s talk about our neighbours. Five years ago, James Hansen, the head of NASA’s institute on planetary science, accused NASA public relations staff of suppressing his public statements on the causes of climate change. It became clear that the political appointee who tried to silence Hansen’s findings was following orders to ensure that scientists’ communication with the press was in line with the official stance of the White House.

Hansen’s experience with scientific censorship wasn’t an isolated case. Nearly half of federal climate scientists in the U.S. claim that they have been pressured to remove the words “global warming” or “climate change” from their reports. They claim their work has been edited by bureaucrats, and many said they too have been prevented from talking to the media. More recently—and despite a new government that has promised to “restore science to its rightful place”—federal scientist talking about the BP oil spill have required government clearance before speaking to the press about their findings.

Bad Americans.

Oh wait—things may sound bad in the United States, but here in Canada the situation is even worse. In this country, politics always trump science.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government is all about message control—both within the Conservative party and also for federal employees. In 2007, Environment Canada implemented a new federal communications policy that demanded that federal scientists obtain permission from the federal government prior to giving any interviews. The regulation is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s attitudes toward scientific debate, but is far more institutionalized and overarching. By ignoring or denying interview requests, the government steals the ability of the country’s news outlets to talk to experts and cover scientific findings.

Effectively, the Conservative Party has complete control over media coverage on climate science. Since the Harper government introduced the new rules, media coverage of climate science dropped by more than 80 per cent. It seems that when the conclusions of the Canadian government’s own climate research run counter to the Conservative government’s stance on the Kyoto Protocol, the oil sands, or any of the party’s policies toward the environment, potential debate is simply squelched.

After the loss of the mandatory long-form census, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a union for federal scientists, launched a campaign against Canada’s “worrying trend away from evidence-based policy-making.” Canadian scientists have begun to fight back, but federally employed climate scientists remain gagged.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice’s campaign of soft censorship through reduced funding to independent research is also an attack that can’t be ignored. In theory, agencies like the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science fund university-based research independently from political bodies, but last year Prentice threatened these investments. Without money to conduct research, scientists can’t provide the public with evidence informing debate.

The people of Canada pay taxes to fund scientific research, but the government of Canada doesn’t let us hear the results. Scientists get public funding to research questions that have serious ramifications in modern political debate. We must demand that they get the chance to report back to Canadians with accuracy—otherwise it amounts to a conscious effort on the part of the government to keep the Canadian voters uninformed about the consequences of federal policies.