Canadian Officials Censoring Scientists Whose Results They Don't Like

from the politically-influenced-science dept

Slashdot points us to a troubling report out of Canada, concerning a scientist who appears to have been given something of a gag order concerning her research about depleted salmon stocks. I have to admit that the article in the Vancouver Sun is not particularly clear at all as to why the scientist herself can’t just speak out. I’m a bit confused about how Canadian laws work on this, but apparently there’s a Privy Council Office, which has the power to block the scientist, Kristi Miller, from talking about her research:

The documents show major media outlets were soon lining up to speak with Miller, but the Privy Council Office said no to the interviews.

The Privy Council Office also nixed a Fisheries Department news release about Miller’s study, saying the release “was not very good, focused on salmon dying and not on the new science aspect,” according to documents obtained by Postmedia News under the Access to Information Act.

Miller is still not allowed to speak publicly about her discovery, and the Privy Council Office and Fisheries Department defend the way she has been silenced.

What I don’t understand — and perhaps some Canadian law experts could jump in and explain — is how this particular office can prevent Miller from speaking out herself, though that’s clearly the implication of the article. The reasoning given by the Privy Council Office and the Fisheries Department doesn’t make much sense either:

The Privy Council Office and the Fisheries Department said Miller has not been permitted to discuss her work because of the Cohen Commission, a judicial inquiry created by the prime minister to look into declines of the famed Fraser River sockeye salmon. She is expected to appear before the commission in late August.

But how would reporting the actual results of a study relevant to the Commission be a problem? That part isn’t clearly explained either, leading to the obvious implication that the government simply doesn’t like what’s in the report, and would prefer that it not be discussed. Of course, if that was the goal… it seems to have backfired.

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Comments on “Canadian Officials Censoring Scientists Whose Results They Don't Like”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

The Privy Council Office is basically just part of the Prime Minister’s executive staff. Nothing especially ominous, despite the name 🙂

They are only able to muzzle her because she is a federal employee. It’s probably largely contractual – though it is still definitely odd, considering the study was already published in one of the world’s biggest journals. The part about the inquiry is definitely confusing though.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Here is another link about the sory

My understanding is her research doesn’t implicate the oil sands, but a leukemia-like virus.

If it’s a concern to any big economic interest, it would probably be BC’s salmon aquaculture industry (potentially a breeding ground for viruses that affect the wild population).

Adam Bell (profile) says:

If anyone actually cares, privy is from a french word meaning private. In English, it means sharing in the knowledge of, in the know about, in on, informed of, etc. In law, a person having a part or interest in an action, matter or thing. They are privy to the Prime Minister’s secrets.

The muzzling is almost certainly because Canadian First Nation tribes along the Pacific coast have fishing rights in excess of the commercial fishery, are largely suspected of abusing those rights (by commercial fishermen, anyway) so their fishing may be implicated in the decline (or not). British Columbia is politically correct in the extreme so it would never do to air the possibility.

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“British Columbia is politically correct in the extreme so it would never do to air the possibility.”

But the Privy Council’s Office is a federal entity. What does the political correctness of British Columbia have to do with their decision?

“The muzzling is almost certainly because Canadian First Nation tribes…may be implicated in the decline (or not)”

What’s the basis for this claim? It almost certainly seems like it may be a wild guess (or not).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Native Americans

I new a guy who grew up ‘on the res’ (reservation) in British Columbia. Apparently he was part of, or knew folks who were part of some of the significant protest that have taken place.(Saw some pictures on the net that were quite interesting). Seems they stopped trains and closed important highways, etc.

I think the government does not want more of that, if someone was to point at the Native Americans.

sheenyglass (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Native Americans

Except that the article in Science is about the prevalence of specific genomic signatures among the dying salmon, which as another commenter has stated implicates salmon farming.

So First Nations’ actions are completely irrelevant to the the government censorship. Wild speculation couched as being “almost certain[]” is a great way to pollute our discourse with false knowledge, which is highly tenacious and resistant to correction –

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“What’s the basis for this claim? It almost certainly seems like it may be a wild guess (or not).”

This happens a lot. Fishing not as good as it used to be? Blame the tribes. Or blame the commercials. Or blame the government hatcheries. Or blame the private aquaculture industries.

Fisheries user groups are notorious for having lots and lots of blame based on decidedly mixed facts.

Anshar (profile) says:

Canadian Government

Sadly, this is par for the course with the current government.
Our Prime Minister has? control issues and always has.
Our current government is ideologically driven and if the facts don’t fit their ideas, the facts are swept under the rug, ignored or not collected in the first place.
It’s only going to get worse now that they have a majority in the House of Commons.

Victor says:

Abstract doesn't sound sinister, then again...

Science 14 January 2011:
Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 214-217
DOI: 10.1126/science.1196901

Genomic Signatures Predict Migration and Spawning Failure in Wild Canadian Salmon


Long-term population viability of Fraser River sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) is threatened by unusually high levels of mortality as they swim to their spawning areas before they spawn. Functional genomic studies on biopsied gill tissue from tagged wild adults that were tracked through ocean and river environments revealed physiological profiles predictive of successful migration and spawning. We identified a common genomic profile that was correlated with survival in each study. In ocean-tagged fish, a mortality-related genomic signature was associated with a 13.5-fold greater chance of dying en route. In river-tagged fish, the same genomic signature was associated with a 50% increase in mortality before reaching the spawning grounds in one of three stocks tested. At the spawning grounds, the same signature was associated with 3.7-fold greater odds of dying without spawning. Functional analysis raises the possibility that the mortality-related signature reflects a viral infection.

out_of_the_blue says:

"why the scientist herself can't just speak out..."

Again, as in the Mendenhall/Hanes story, who pays is in control of speech. Obviously a pernicious power whether a corporation or a gov’t exercises it.

In any case, Canadians don’t actually have free speech rights as Americans do: they’re all serfs under a monarch. They’re misled into thinking they’re better off that way, and given some modern toys as privileges to keep them quiet, but are in fine point little different in status from the Middle Ages. I make the point not to enrage the serfs, but to remind persons that we’re close to falling back under an effectively feudal system where The Inheriting Rich have rights and everyone else gets to do the work.

Any Mouse (profile) says:

Re: "why the scientist herself can't just speak out..."

Speaking out of your ass, again? If you actually rubbed two brain cells together, you might get a big enough spark to check before you speak. Canadians are guaranteed free speech rights by article 2b of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. True, there is a limitation on it, but calling them ‘serfs’ is just beyond trollish.

Alien Bard says:

Re: Re: "why the scientist herself can't just speak out..."

Actually Blue is frighteningly close to the reality on this one. Canadian rights have been shrinking at a similar rate to those of US citizenry, but we had fewer to begin with. The feeling that we are becoming ‘serfs’ has crossed my mind on more than one occasion.

Anonymous Coward says:

The point that the Canadian government is trying to suppress is that the viral infection mentioned in the abstract comes from farmed salmon. Thus, the salmon farming industry (which farms Atlantic salmon, even on the Pacific side) is negatively affecting the wild Pacific salmon.
And yes such suppression of information from federal scientists that don’t fit with the current political direction has become a problem in recent years in Canada. What is intriguing in this case is that the author was allowed to publish the information, and it is the follow up that is being suppressed. The government was slow to catch this one.

Thomas Foster says:

Canada censoring scientists

Canadian Government (under Stephan Harper) is pro-corporate and anti-information, rightist, and very controlling in a micromanaging way. The Oil Sands will be protected. The Kyoto Protocol was stopped. Canada began to fight wars instead of make peace. Canada has had conservative governments before, but this one is different. It is government by information control and stealth and it is changing Canada – not to the good.

Canadian research scientist Shiv Chopra, who worked for Health Canada for 35 years, was fired in 2004 for insubordination – he refused to accept BGH/BST without testing – he is now fighting wrongful dismissal. For info see a paper he delivered in India “The Five Pillars of Food Safety” – His site is non-commercial; it offers free information and offers two DVDs that Shiv Chopra thinks are of public health value; his website uses no cookies, employs no ad networks, no tracking cookies, and no browser, flash, silverlight, etc. But WOT users (like myself) will find his website flagged – Warning: This site has a bad reputation. I think this may be a dirty trick against Shiv Chopra and WOT, part of an on-going suppression of Shiv Chopra.

“Since 2007, Environment Canada has required senior federal scientists to seek permission from the government prior to giving interviews, often requiring them to get approval from supervisors of written responses to the questions submitted by journalists before any interview. ”
This article states that “Climate science reviews have been reduced by 80%.”

HM says:

Re: Just another day at the scientific office

It isn’t other scientists shouting down this researcher. Its the majority ruling party of Canada (The Conservatives) and in particular a policy put in place by Stephen Harper and his inner cabinet. The policy being that scientists employed by the government are not allowed to talk about their research without first going through the Prime Minister’s Office . The PMO’s office is effectively the chokehold on preventing the Canadian public from hearing about research that we’ve funded.

crade (profile) says:

Our environmental scientists are basically all under permanent gag order unless told otherwise.
It’s kinda funny and sad, but it’s not really the govt’s fault, they are doing what the people voted them in for. Willful stupidity / head in the sand is what people seem want around here these days.

aikiwolfie (profile) says:

Given that this scientist is about to attend a judicial inquiry I’d say it does make some kind of sense that she shouldn’t be talking to the media. In fact isn’t somewhat standard practice that people brought before a judicial inquiry don’t talk about the subject matter of the inquiry in any great detail?

At least so far as I can see that’s what happens in the UK. Maybe Canada is different and those called before a judicial inquiry immediately give all kinds of interviews to as many media organisations as possible.

I think people are jumping the shark here. I don’t see anything fishy happening just yet. Let the inquiry run it’s course and then see if this scientist takes the bait and gives an interview.

aldestrawk says:

Not just Canada

The U.S. government, in particular the Bush administration, has also gagged scientists. If the scientist works for an agency of the U.S. government and the research is around a topic that is a political hot button, you can bet that it will be “spokesman” and not the scientists who are allowed to talk.

“At a news conference, Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall denied that the memos were a form of censorship. He described the content of the documents as part of a policy to establish an agenda and the appropriate spokesperson for international meetings.”

DC Reid (user link) says:

Salmon Researcher Muzzled

Kristi Miller was silenced because she is a federal DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) employee and would be fired from her job if she spoke.

While Stephen Harper started as Prime Minister as a ‘let’s let the workers speak’ kind of guy, the PMO soon took over and now the PCO has silenced Miller – and many other scientists.

It was the failure to do anything about the science that lead to the collapse of the east coast cod in the ’90s.

In Canada, the leading party, under its leader, in this case Harper, is the boss of the civil service. If anyone says anything the leading party does not like, then that person is fired, or their career takes a nose dive. This is the Westminster model of Parliamentary Democracy, inherited from England.

In the Canadian system, the rights of the provinces (states) are distinct from the federal government. The feds have fisheries, navigable waters and coast guard. Hence why the prime minister’s office (PMO) in Ottawa can muzzle anyone.

In this case it is bizarre because the research has already been published. But the gist is that DFO is on the side of more fish farms (an environmental disaster, if you look at only Chile were $2Billion has been lost in the last two years) and is stifling any research that makes it look like the Norwegian derivative companies are doing anything wrong.

As these companies, some owned by the Norwegian government, are trying to set up shop in the USA – we in BC have been trying to get them out of the water and onto land now for almost 15 years – I suggest you do some research and oppose any US expansion.

One of the bad diseases, ISO, has already shown up in Maine, brought by a fish farm, and its transmittal to the west coast could lead to the extinction of all five species of Pacific salmon. This is a big issue.

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