Take the muzzle off scientists

What do internationally renowned scientist David Suzuki, outspoken members of the Canadian science community and the New York Times editorial board all have in common? They don’t trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

What do internationally renowned scientist David Suzuki, outspoken members of the Canadian science community and the New York Times editorial board all have in common?

They don’t trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

All three have joined a growing outcry demanding the proposed Keystone XL pipeline be scrapped because they fear that any controversial environmental impact will be carefully groomed by Harper before the water-downed version is made public.

At the heart of the issue is the federal government’s policy that no scientific findings on any sensitive matters will be made public until edited by a federal board of censorship.

Harper has muzzled the Canadian science community. And his policies, say critics, are meant to accommodate big business.

This policy, viewed by many as a serious violation against the public’s right to know when the environment is at stake, has spirited Suzuki, Canadian scientists and the New York Times to question Harper’s credibility in handling this massive pipeline proposal.

And Harper’s recent approach to the issue, telling U.S. investors at a gathering in New York that he won’t take no for an answer on the proposal, further raises questions.

“My view is that you don’t take no for an answer,” Harper said. “If we were to get that (refusal), that won’t be final. This won’t be final until it’s approved and we will keep pushing forward.”

Suzuki and two other Canadian environmental activists challenged that assertion recently at a meeting in the U.S., telling members of Congress and representatives from the State Department that Harper can’t be trusted.

The trio said the impact of the pipeline, which would link Alberta’s oilsands to refineries in Texas, will never be known because Harper has denied Canadians input on the expansion of the energy-rich area by muzzling federal government scientists.

“This (Canadian) government has systematically been suppressing the ability of our scientists to speak up,” Suzuki was quoted by CBC. “Government scientists, paid by our tax dollars, are not allowed to speak to the press without first being vetted through the prime minister’s office.”

He said Canadians aren’t getting the science-based evidence they need to make big decisions. “This is, I think, is a critical crisis for Canada. … I think it’s important that America understands the limit of what our so-called leaders are telling them.”

Harper might be having some success selling the pipeline idea to U.S. politicians and investors, but the New York Times’ editorial board isn’t buying the sale’s pitch. In March, the Times urged the Obama administration to scrap the pipeline proposal, citing the “gag order” imposed on Canadian scientists.

“Over the last few years, the government of Canada — led by Stephen Harper — has made it harder and harder for publicly financed scientists to communicate with the public and with other scientists,” read an editorial.

“There was trouble of this kind here in the George W. Bush years, when scientists were asked to toe the party line on climate policy and endangered species. But nothing came close to what is being done in Canada.”

The editorial continued: “The Harper policy seems designed to make sure the tarsands project proceeds quietly. To all the other kinds of pollution the tarsands will yield, we must now add another: the degradation of vital streams of research and information.”

Canadian scientists aren’t taking a backseat in the debate.

A recent demonstration by hundreds of frustrated experts, garbed in white lab coats, on Parliament Hill demanded Harper remove their muzzles and stop cutting research funding.

“What do we want? Evidence-based decision making!” they shouted, accusing the government of “commercializing research.” The demonstration was part of a national series of Stand Up For Science protests organized by Ottawa-based science advocacy group Evidence for Democracy. The group argues evidence-based decision-making must inform government funding decisions on science, but current funding has “instead shifted towards commercialization of research.”

Participant Bela Joos, a University of Ottawa physics profession, said “They want us to put aside what we’re doing and shift our efforts towards industry and force us to” redirect federal funding towards “earmarked projects.”

Harper’s funding cuts, claim the scientists, have undermined their ability to serve the public good.

Joining the howls of protest is the federal NDP party, which has introduced a motion in Parliament demanding Harper “to un-muzzle Canada’s scientists.”

Our environmental health is a shared concern; it must be transparent. There’s no room for carefully guarded scientific findings. Harper must recognize, for the benefit of all those concerned, that this ludicrous censorship cannot continue.

Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.

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