Unmuzzled government scientists are ready to talk

Federal government scientists are bursting to discuss a lost decade. Ask them anything.

Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

Dr. Kristi Miller-Saunders. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

As a graduate student, Kristi Miller researched recruitment dynamics—changes in population abundance from year to year—in barnacles. They used barnacles to observe this phenomenon because they were abundant and easy to monitor. But they’re not exactly cuddly organisms, and talking about her work tended to act as a bit of a record-scratch sound effect in conversation. “When I would try to explain to friends and family what I was doing, they would look at me like, ‘Well, who cares about that? Why would anyone want to spend time and money on that?’ ” she says, laughing. As she progressed through her education—she completed a Ph.D. in biological sciences at Stanford University in 1992—Miller wanted to work on something people cared about. “I loved what I was doing, but I really wanted it to matter,” she says. That drew her to government science: she wanted to be involved with people who were making policy decisions, to have her research help shape something in the real world. She would, however, eventually become a poster child of the Conservative government’s “muzzling” of scientists.

Now, as head of the molecular genetics section at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, B.C., she works on developing novel technologies to track the health and condition of salmon. What she loves more than anything is knowing a tool she developed is being used to make decisions. She works long, intense hours because she loves her job, and that and her family—her husband of 25 years, a 22-year-old daughter and 20-year-old son—define the shape of her life.

In 2011, Miller published a paper in the high-profile journal Science on her discovery of a genomic signature in dwindling Fraser River sockeye salmon populations, which suggested that a viral infection was causing them to die off in large numbers before spawning. The journal flagged her paper as being of widespread interest, so she sought boilerplate approval from Fisheries and Oceans Canada (commonly known as DFO, for Department of Fisheries and Oceans) to do interviews. Journalists started calling, then tap-dancing anxiously as the embargo date on the study neared, but Miller was hamstrung, still waiting for permission to chat. Finally, a few days after the study came out—along with the initial rush of coverage—word came down through her department: there would be no approval to speak about what was considered a bad-news story. “It was actually really embarrassing, to be honest,” Miller says.

She was far from the only one who experienced this during the last several years of Stephen Harper’s government. If, say, you had a burning desire to know more about “rock snot”—which is best explained by its considerably less evocative identity as freshwater algae—you were out of luck, because the Canadian government scientist who was the pre-eminent expert on that particular natural wonder was under a gag order. Similarly, if you wanted to hear the author of Hotter Than Hell, a novel about a dystopian world ravaged by climate change, speak about the universe he’d conjured on the page, it wasn’t going to happen; he, too, was a government scientist told not to talk. Others attending a climate change conference in Montreal in 2012 were instructed to take the business cards of any journalists who wanted to talk to them and hand them over to media relations staff, who would arrange and chaperone interviews for researchers presumably too timorous and delicate to handle the task themselves. Still others were turned into sock puppets and helpfully handled scripts from which to answer questions.

What resulted from all of this shushing is what’s known on the Internet as “the Streisand effect,” so named for Barbra Streisand’s attempt to sue a photographer into removing a photo of her Malibu mansion from a thoroughly obscure website where he was documenting coastline erosion. As a direct result of the publicity around the lawsuit, the virtually buried photo of the singer’s home became a gleefully shared online pin-up. And so with Miller’s research and others, the effort to squelch coverage of science that likely would have had a short life in the spotlight instead spawned a new and much longer-legged series of stories about the Conservative government slapping muzzles on its own researchers.

By the 2015 federal election campaign, this was fertile ground for Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to stake out when they pledged in their platform to “value science and treat scientists with respect,” and ensure “that scientists are able to speak freely about their work.” Two days after the cabinet was sworn in, Navdeep Bains, the newly minted minister of innovation, science and economic development, announced that government scientists and experts were fully available to chat. The news was greeted in one department with the pop of a wine cork (non-alcoholic, these being work hours and responsible public servants and all), and in others with literal cheering.

The unmuzzling of government scientists has been a conspicuous and symbolically important part of the approach this government has aimed to project: transparent, progressive, fans of evidence-based policy-making and—perhaps most of all—Not Like The Last Guys. The implementation of the much-touted policy was slow to trickle down to ground level, though, and rolled out unevenly across departments.

But call a Canadian government scientist these days and you’re likely to get a swift response and a freewheeling conversation that has the feel of a long-held breath being exhaled. Rock snot, dystopian climate novels, sickly salmon—Canada could well set up a toll-free number that would let all these scientists release years of pent-up chatter about their work.

Critics, however, charged that the new government, particularly in the first half of last year, was basking in the glow of looking science-friendly while failing to ensure things had really changed. “Shortly after Canadians elected our government, we announced that federal scientists were once again free to speak about their work. This action followed years where scientists were silenced and government support for science flatlined,” Kirsty Duncan, minister for science, says in a statement. “We respect scientists and the important work they do, and remain committed to increasing openness and transparency. While we’re proud of this new approach, it is a culture shift that will take time to implement.” To that end, in May 2016, the government put out an updated communications policy spelling this out, her office said, adding, “Each department and agency is responsible for implementing this policy.”

Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the union that represents most ­­government scientists, says that some departments, including DFO, where Miller works, and Environment Canada, were proactive about this and explicitly told their employees and managers of the new approach soon after the announcement. But that didn’t happen everywhere. “Things were slow to get flowing,” she says. “Yes, the government changed its communications policy, but nobody seemed to know about it.” As of this fall, Daviau says more and more of their members were being clearly informed of their right to speak even if they were not designated spokespeople.

Last month, PIPSC triumphantly announced that it had negotiated with the government to include in its collective agreements a clause that protects this openness. “That was already the government’s policy, but now it’s enshrined in our collective agreement so no future government can take this away from us without a big fight,” Daviau says. She says all these measures are necessary to alleviate some of the “trauma, if you will” experienced by scientists over the last several years, and to restore “a sense of safety and security” that they can freely perform and discuss their research. “When a government is taking away their capacity to do their work, that’s a bigger attack to them than even not giving them raises or taking away their offices,” she says.

Back in 2010, Scott Dallimore, a Sidney, B.C.-based research scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada and Natural Resources Canada, published a paper about a flood in northern Canada, but permission for him to speak to journalists was delayed until their stories were long filed. This was puzzling, given the fact that the flood his work focused on had occurred 13,000 years ago. “I don’t think my muzzling was super severe, but I think it was entertaining and it was farcical in some ways,” he says. “It just didn’t make sense. The science I was doing would not be easily accessed by the media when it had been published in Nature, a prestigious journal.” To this day, he says he doesn’t know why the approval was so slow in coming, but things are different now. “The changes in the government of Canada that have happened have come down to the scientist level and they’re very encouraging,” he says. “They suggest to me the government is serious about improving the atmosphere for access to government science by the media, dissemination of our science results. I see no reason to be suspicious that they don’t have very good intent, and it has completely changed the atmosphere for the working environment.”

One of the things that made the muzzling so difficult for government scientists is how it was fundamentally at odds with the way they work, and with the culture of their discipline. As Miller explains it, science is to some degree inherently about debate—scientists may disagree on the interpretation of data, and as they gather evidence that supports or refutes hypotheses, what they understand changes over time. Given how scientific knowledge evolves and deepens with technology and the accumulation of evidence, for Miller, confidence and integrity rest on knowing your research is solid and you have interpreted it well. “Truth is how we understand it today,” she says. “What our truth is today has to be based on the weight of evidence we have now.” But debate—which she knows to simply be a part of science—tends to be frowned upon in government departments. “They want a hard line. They want to know this is the answer and there only is one viewpoint,” she says. “I think sometimes the knee-jerk reaction of a manager is to pick the side of the most convenient truth.”

Much robust research goes on in government departments, Miller says, but if they’re not allowed to talk about their findings, they’re not on equal footing with researchers in universities and other institutions. “The public, they start trusting the government science less,” she says. “They don’t hear about it, so they start wondering, ‘Do they actually do anything? Do they actually do anything that matters to us?’ So you slowly erode the public trust and public support of the government-level science.”

Since the new government came in, Miller has done plenty of interviews—all with the instructions to just set up whatever conversations she likes and give the communications department a heads-up afterward—but they’ve all been about how politics affected scientists like her, not on the research that consumes her. “After I had done five or six or seven interviews on the lifting of the ban, I started asking, ‘Is anyone ever going to ask me what I’m doing, about the science?’ ” she says, laughing.

For the record: Miller’s program recently uncovered heart and skeletal muscle inflammation, a disease not previously known to be present in B.C. salmon. She has a big team working on this, with more papers coming out soon. And she’s happy to talk about it anytime—just ask.


Unmuzzled government scientists are ready to talk

  1. It is indeed the 21st century!

    At long last!

  2. Muzzling scientists was the method chosen to limit the publication of defamatory lies under the guise of “government research”. Since the government was the publisher of the defamatory lies, the government was liable. Unfortunately, the courts failed to address the matter properly and basically gave government scientists a blank slate to publish defamatory lies. The scientist’s Ethics Organizations took no interest in the problem, and while many scientists were horrified and outraged that other scientists were abusing the system, there was nothing they could do.
    While we might regret that the government “muzzled” scientists, there probably wasn’t anything else that could be done.
    Now that they are allowed to publish again, one can only hope there are some safeguards in place to ensure that unscrupulous ‘scientists” do not ruin any more lives with defamation and lies.

    • Source?

      • BC Supreme Court

        • No it isn’t.

        • I said source it….not name a building.

          Either come up with the code number for the law document or go away.

            Wiebe v. Bouchard ,

            2008 BCSC 249

            Date: 20080311
            Docket: 04-1156
            Registry: Victoria

        • You mean the crackpot stuff easily googled under ‘Wiebe v. Bouchard ‘

          which has nothing to do with science?

          Sorry, no.

          • You asked for the citation and I gave it. You might at least do a bit of investigation and try to understand the issue. It is not the simple “Harper hates science” situation that you claim. I’m sure that rankles, but it is true.

        • Looks like a straight up copy the BC Supreme Court judgment. Are you calling the judge a crackpot?

          • I’m calling YOU a crackpot.

            In fact I’d say you need medical help.

          • Come on Emily….
            Regardless of whether or not I am a “crackpot” and no matter my medical issues (if any), the facts I have posted are quite clear and easily verified or falsified. For somebody who claims to be such a big fan of the scientific method etc., your skill at investigation is woefully lacking. I might be all the things you think I am – and still be correct – just like many scientists. That’s how these things work.

          • Your stuff is about father’s rights and feminists …..and nothing to do with science whatsoever.

          • Emily….
            The citation I gave you is a BC Supreme Court judgment, where the federal government and scientists were found to have published politically-motivated defamation. The particular circumstances that motivated them to produce and publish the defamation might be of interest to some people, but those details are completely irrelevant to the fact that government scientists were found to have published defamation disguised as research.

            Attempting to dismiss this because you don’t like the subject matter, is dishonest and cowardly. A serious scientists tries to understand the truth.

    • What utter nonsense. I’ll assume your use of “Freeman” explains the bizarre comment.

      • Yup, probably.

      • ‘…your use of “Freeman” explains the bizarre comment.’

        I think the surname “Dick” is a better indicator.

      • You know what they say about “ASSuming”.

      • All these oh-so-clever people…. don’t have a clue, so they pick on a net handle. No wonder this country is in such sad shape.

    • And you wrote this based on what? Fake news or you were dreaming last night?
      Wake up we now have Federal Government that strongly supports scientists and their work.
      It is 2017 and most of us do not believe that earth was created 6,000 years ago. Maybe you do?

      • BC Supreme Court

    • Dear Freeman,

      It’s the public nature of science that keeps scientists honest. It’s part of the process – they publish their findings so that other scientists can test their accuracy. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Harper wanted to keep fisheries quiet to give free rein to industries to destroy fish and fish habitat. He was the filthy liar in the bunch.

      • I am not suggesting that muzzling scientists was a good thing. I think it was the only remaining option when the BC Supreme Court ruled that government policy research was “opinion” and not factual, and then allowed the federal government to publish defamation disguised as research. In Canadian law, a “fair comment” defense for defamation is not allowed for factual publications, but that is what the court did – effectively creating open season for any ‘scientists’ to have defamation published by the federal government.
        It would have been much better if the ‘scientists’ involved in this dishonest publication had accepted responsibility, and the federal government had accepted liability for publication, instead of dragging down the entire scientific profession as well as the courts and the government.

  3. Thialidomide. The Atlantic Cod stocks. Chalk River. Muzzling Canada’s scientists has never resulted in much good. At worst they stimulate thinking and best they can save us from catastrophe.

    I’d prefer to see politicians muzzled. It does less harm.

    • Muzzling scientists does prevent scientists and government from producing and publishing defamatory lies. I agree that this is not the best solution, accepting responsibility and providing compensation would have been much better, but somebody’s knickers got in a twist and the BC court simply could not let Doug Christie win one.

  4. I’m absolutely shattered that the salmon stock is being depleted. Guess I’m going to get used to damn lobster.
    Oh well, that’s life.

  5. Ask them anything. OK. Is it global warming, climate change, or global cooling?

    • You two pretending to be stupid on here, or does happen naturally?

    • The important thing is the global carbon tax funding.

  6. I disagree with Emily and others like her below. No public servant i.e government employee, should be allowed to express publicly opinion on scientific or other matters without clearance from the political level. If they want to speak up then they should go work for a university where the principle of academic freedom prevails. Even if they work for a private employer or private company where also an employer might be liable for what they say. The solution is to be like Charles Darwin who inherited money and married a rich spouse and could then damn well say what he liked. (AND DID)

    • We pay the salaries of these scientists….and for the facilities and equipment they use….you mean to tell me that their research should then be censored for political reasons??

      • This is exactly what he said. He mist be a control frisk, like his former PM?

        • My understanding is that the “muzzling”, if that’s what it has been called, has been on the government “books” since 1954. Harper campaigned on a “one voice” platform and enforced the existing rules to give one voice and unity to his government. Harper did not “create” a new set of rules — he just enforced existing rules. Even under Chretien the fisheries department complained about “muzzling”. It was just a high level manager who decided to enforce the existing rules. Each scientist, under their work terms, has agreed in principle to those rules. Our current PM has decided to relax the rules on book.

          It has nothing to do with a “war on science”. For good information on this “war on science” myth read “Getting It Right: Canadian Conservatives and the ‘War on Science'” – Amend & Barney.

          • No it hasn’t been going on since 1954

            And we never had a scientist’s protest march on Parl hill before either.

            As to a ‘war on science’…..yeah, when you put a creationist in charge of the science ministry……it’s a war.

          • Emily… putting a creationist in charge might be better than putting a feminist in charge. You might disagree with the creationist, but they are unlikely to ruin your life and the life of your entire family.

          • Emily. Try reading a source for a change. Your ability to look at things critically is woefully lacking. The journal was written by McGill University authors. You know McGill — that bastion of Liberal thought? The article is a critical look at the Conservative Government at that time period. You may be surprised by the findings in the “Science Ministry” which include funding, hiring and of course the myth. I could not even find the word “creation” in the article which leads me to believe that you do not read sources when they are provided to you.

      • The business of politics is policy. The business of scientists is science. When a public servant discusses anything he/she is getting involved in policy. As I said, if they want to speak out, quit and then speak out; go to a university job. I am disappointed in you, Emily: you purport to have been an elected person once; surely you should know that. The scientists are not censored for political reasons any more than any whistle blower is flouting both law and democratic tradition. Any student of public administration knows that.

        • YOU may not be able to discuss science without dragging politics into it…….but other people can.

          Science is science…..not politics.

          • All a public servant has to do is request clearance to give a talk etc.
            What to do about science is politics, big time. Emily, you are out to lunch on this one.As for me, I read about and study science and talk about it but since I am not a public servant it is not a problem. But I can get political about scientific issues and what the govt is or is not doing about it – and have done so.

        • Science is science and politics is politics.

          If you can’t keep them separate you shouldn’t be in the business.

          • What a facile reply! Everything in public administration can be a policy matter. It is the business of political representatives i.e cabinet to comment on policy. The scientists are hired to advise those above in the hierarchy, not to free-lance. The substance of a scientific finding can reverberate on matters of policy. Why are scientists hired by government: to do science for the government, not for you, Emily who feels your little mite bought all the equipment etc and pays the salaries. As I said before, if a scientist or engineer or any other professional does not agree with his job he or she should quit and then make a noise.

          • Blacktop you are confusing the two

            Climate science is climate science

            What the govt is going to DO about it is politics

            There is no point in having scientists if we don’t …..or can’t….listen to them.

            This is not WWII ya know where we need to keep everything secret from the enemy.

            We are employers, not enemies

          • Emily, Blacktop is much closer to the truth than you. The government actually does have an obligation to ensure that any science that it funds/publishes is FACTUAL, honest, and does not libel/defame people. Government scientists and agencies deliberately and knowingly abused their funding and resources to pursue a political agenda – and they lied and libeled people. Nobody is held responsible, and something has to be done. “Muzzling” is not a good option, I agree, but given the utterly irresponsible system – what else could be done?

      • Some of their work should definitely be censored. Robert Kennedy and his sponsor Donald Trump, as government officials are going to promote the imaginary link between vaccination and autism. To do so, they will use every lousy study by every whack job scientist they can get their hands on. Further, the U of T is offering a “anti-psychiatry” scholarship to offered for those who wish to prove the assertion that mental illness is not real….not a particular mental illness but rather all mental illnesses. It is truly incredible how dangerous an unleashed idiot throwing around the scientific method can prove to be to the reputation of an institution and a country.

    • You know what they say about “ASSuming”.

    • Blacktop is correct, especially since the BC Supreme Court determined that government policy research publications are not factual, they are opinion or comment. If scientists want to publish with less oversight then they first should accept legal liability for what they publish, and stop hiding behind “fair comment” defense for the slanderous lies of a few bad actors in their ranks.

  7. Should “science and the government” be on the the level as “religion and politics” ? ( never to mix) I believe that its not so much as these dedicated investigators of nature be ham-strung into not revealing the truth about life as we know it, but rather, those spin doctors who are hired by the politicians to speak on their behalf…and THEIR way of interpreting that information as to whether or not we (the masses) can handle “voices of doom and gloom” because, lets face it, Joe Public can’t think for themselves!!

    • Government scientists themselves are quite capable of “spinning” their research into ideological arguments, defamation, lies, opinions and general nonsense. They are quite capable of ducking all responsibility for false claims and damaging people’s lives with their publications. And the courts allow it. That leaves it to the government to police these ‘scientists’ and guard against abuse.
      It is truly a pity that the current ruling party does not understand the history, or the consequences, of their actions.

  8. Emily, I am not confusing anything. A climate scientist or any other scientist employed by the government is no different than any other expert in his or her field where they are employed by the government – a doctor employed by a health department, an economist or other professional expert or non-expert for that matter.
    You are so enthused over publicity-seeking Trudeau that you have lost bearings on the issue. No public servant is free to discuss his field without leave from an authorizing minister. That has been basic for ages. Trudeau is so busy reversing anything with Harper’s imprint that he has lost any credibility for this as well as his over-weaning pursuit of pictorial exposure fir himself and his styled “first lady” – another myth. Sophie should stick to the fashion shows. .

    • Blacktop, a scientist in the US could come out with a report……with the very same info our scientists have discovered but are forbidden to reveal.. SCIENCE IS NOT SECRET.

      Apparently you are unaware of what science actually is, and have wandered off into fashion shows and the like.

    • No, Emily – it is you who are unaware as to what science really is. Government policy research is “opinion or comment”, and not factual. It is also allowed to be defamatory lies in Canada. So says the BC Supreme court. Address that problem and you might have a legitimate beef.

      • Go take your meds, Dick

        • Now that it’s clear you have no understanding of the issues, rather than learn something new, you stoop the level of ridiculous and baseless ad hominem attack. Are you a government scientist?

          • Are you sane? No.

          • Seriously? You don’t know me, and you certainly are not medically qualified to asses anyone’s sanity. You are being very irrational, and you seem to be trying to avoid reality by putting up a smokescreen of dishonest accusations and insults. Are you sure that you aren’t a government scientist?

          • Anyhow, I am being nice to you because I think you might be a 12 year old girl. I make allowances for children, they will eventually learn.

          • Dick…..kindly don’t talk to me again……you are over the edge and in the abyss….and I never listen to bullshit.


          • Those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.