And the muzzling continues

Russell
Russell Wangersky
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My father was a scientist — a chemical oceanographer, to be exact, completely concerned with the makeup of seawater and the way that chemical nutrients found their way to particularly lucky and well-adapted marine life.

He worked for most of his academic career in a university in Halifax, publishing scores of papers, sampling ocean water from around the world and becoming a recognized expert in his field.

He was also a generalist, concerned with the way that different areas of science were focusing on smaller and smaller sub-specialties — the equivalent of everyone working in their own rooms on a single project, blissfully unaware of how or whether their project might be part of a larger and much more significant complete picture.

Public process

Early in his career, a budding marine chemist in Florida, he had turned down potentially lucrative scientific work for the U.S. Navy — in part because he was enjoying the work he was doing (he enjoyed his scientific work immensely through his entire working career — what a blessing that must have been) and in part because he thought some of the suggested work, like pumping compressed air into sea water or adding chemicals to make warships slip through it more quickly, to be silly.

But mostly, he disliked the idea of doing secret science.

Science was something to be shared, to be tested and retested and questioned — it was, to him, an organic process that depended on a broad discussion of ideas both new and old, a discussion with anyone interested.

It meant a huge pool of friends and acquaintances — some, also from Dalhousie University, who used to show up for an impromptu free weekly lecture series in our living room, fuelled by smoked meat and iced beer. There were others that Dad knew equally well, but had actually either never met — or, more commonly, had only met once or twice a year at different oceanographic conferences.

Far-off friends

I’d hear about those distant scientists when I was young, usually by their last names: Margalef, for example, worked in Barcelona. Platt and Denman. Zika. Yoshanari. The list went on, practically worldwide, from Russia and Japan and Thailand and the United States.

Pretty much anywhere there were ocean scientists, Dad would know someone worth having a beer with — and he’d know them through a thorough and detailed discussion about their ideas and their work.

It made his work better, it made their work better, and, truth be told, it was the kind of renewing engine that makes science exciting and fresh, year after year.

Gagged

I wonder what my dad would say if he were alive and working and a government bureaucrat told him he wasn’t allowed to talk about his work.

The response would not be pretty. Frankly, it would not be publishable. He was a mild-mannered man, quiet and slow to anger, but not when fundamental principles were at stake.

This week, there’s news about work being done by scientist Kristi Miller — well, more to the point, there’s news about what Kristi Miller’s not allowed to say.

Miller has completed a string of research on Pacific salmon genetics, work that suggests that salmon on the west coast are dying as they enter rivers to spawn, and they may well be dying as a result of a large-scale virus that they are genetically susceptible to.

It was such ground-breaking research that when the journal Science published her paper, they took the unusual step of highlighting the work to 7,400 journalists.

In other words, it was science worth talking about, and worth talking about broadly.

Closed mouth

Not if you’re Miller. Unfortunately, Miller doesn’t work at a university — she’s a federal fisheries scientist and the fact is that the current

federal government is extremely uncomfortable with having its scientists talk about anything.

In fact, scientists now need to get permission from their political masters before they talk to the media at all — sometimes, bureaucrats and politicians demand to know every question in advance, and sometimes they tell scientists what they are, and aren’t, allowed to talk about in their research.

Sometimes, as in Miller’s case, the scientists are simply told they’re not allowed to say anything at all.

Depressing research about salmon dying?

Let’s not discuss that.

What’s that woman doing?

Suggesting the Earth isn’t flat?

Saying the Earth orbits around the sun?

We can’t have that kind of public heresy!

Postmedia News Service got its hands on a whole series of emails between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Privy Council Office, DFO saying Miller should be allowed to talk, the Privy Council Office saying no.

Oh, the irony of it being a bunch of emails discussing how to block

a scientist from talking publicly, when that very form of communication, the email, came about directly as a result of the development of a network for sharing information on scientific research.

Free speech

The bottom line is that science thrives on discussion — it is the sharing of ideas, the ultimate in many minds focusing on an issue from many different directions.

A government that decides to throttle that discussion on the basis of political imperatives is no better than one that chooses to stifle science because of religious principles.

A step forward in employees’ accountability to their government employers, or a step backwards to a time when the state set boundaries on science it didn’t like or couldn’t understand?

You decide. I know my dad would quite literally pop his cork.

I’d like my science unadulterated by anyone’s personal ends, political or religious.

Otherwise, it’s not really science, is it?

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: U.S. Navy, Dalhousie University, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Privy Council Office Postmedia News Service

Geographic location: Halifax, Florida, Barcelona Russia Japan Thailand United States Pacific

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Recent comments

  • Ottawa is the Master of stifling information
    July 30, 2011 - 16:14

    Mr. Wangersky do you not see a parallel here? The province of Newfoundland and Labrador lost every one of its natural resources in the raw state to one or the other of the Canadian provinces for their economic benefit, while the province of NL died economically on the Canadian vine, because all information pertaining to the development of its abundant natural resource base was silenced? Every one of its resources was developed without very little info released to the people of the province and sent off in the raw state to the other provinces. Our own Newfoundland and Labrador politicians, Provincial and Federal, allowed themselves to be stifled simply because the Centralist Ottawa government wished it that way. Our politicians toed the line for Ottawa because they damn well knew that they would get paid highly for doing so. Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had no idea what was coming down the pipe line with regards to their natural resources. Matter, of fact, I doubt that they even knew they had a natural resource in their presence because all they ever heard from their politicians was that their province was a poor bald rock totally dependant on Ottawa.

  • Eli
    July 30, 2011 - 13:54

    How did we get to the stage where the country/province is run by the Prime Minister's/Premier's Office rather than their respective legislatures?

    • W McLean
      July 31, 2011 - 01:03

      Through large doses of apathy, indifference, and ignorance.

    • Mark
      July 31, 2011 - 09:07

      We got to this stage by accepting that the job of our Members is to hand out money to us at the whim of the executive branch of government. That's how.

    • Mark
      July 31, 2011 - 10:31

      Maggy's right. Harper is starting to act more and more like Danny with every passing day.

  • Maggy Carter
    July 30, 2011 - 09:14

    Refusing - even requiring - a public employee permission to talk about the technical, as opposed to policy, aspects of his job springs from the same totalitarian instincts of an arrogant, undemocratic government as the refusal to allow a representative of the people - a duly elected legislator - access to a government facility. Canadians in their wisdom, or lack thereof, have elected a prime minister who neither understands nor accepts the values of the parliamentary democracy he is sworn to serve. Can the jack boots be far behind?

    • Paul
      August 02, 2011 - 07:02

      DFO has been under attack by corporatist-minded governments for a long time, this is just the latest muzzling. How many scientists were "silenced" in order for DFO to reach the conclusion that keeping Atlantic salmon in huge feedlots in the midst of Pacific salmon habitat was a good idea? In my opinion DFO has given up on trying to protect wild fish...and given the track record, who can blame them?