Privy Council Office linked to muzzling of top scientist Researcher silenced over study into crash of salmon stocks, documents show
By Margaret Munro, Postmedia NewsJuly 27, 2011
Top bureaucrats in Ottawa have muzzled a leading fisheries scientist whose discovery could help explain why salmon stocks have been crashing off Canada’s West Coast, according to documents obtained by Postmedia News.
The documents show the Privy Council Office, which supports the Prime Minister’s Office, stopped Kristi Miller from talking about one of the most significant discoveries to come out of a federal fisheries lab in years.
Science, one of the world’s top research journals, published Miller’s findings in January. The journal considered the work so significant it notified «over 7,400» journalists worldwide about Miller’s «Suffering Salmon» study.
Science told Miller to «please feel free to speak with journalists.» It advised reporters to contact Diane Lake, a media officer with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Vancouver, «to set up interviews with Dr. Miller.»
Miller heads a $6-million salmon-genetics project at the federal Pacific Biological Station on Vancouver Island.
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 decision.
But observers say it is indefensible and more evidence of the way the government is undermining its scientists.
«There is no question in my mind it’s muzzling,» said Jeffrey Hutchings, a senior fisheries scientist at Halifax’s Dalhousie University.
«When the lead author of a paper in Science is not permitted to speak about her work, that is suppression,» he said. «There is simply no ifs, ands or buts about that.»
The Harper government has tightened the leash on federal scientists, whose work is financed by taxpayers and is often of significant public interest – be it about fish stocks, air pollution or food safety.
Researchers, who used to be free to discuss their science, are now required to follow a process that includes «media lines» approved by communications officers, strategists and ministerial staff in Ottawa.
They vet media requests, demand reporters’ questions in advance and decide when and if researchers can give interviews.
Environment Canada now even has media officers in Ottawa tape-recording the interviews scientists are allowed to give.
Yet transparency as well as open communication and discussion are essential to science, Hutchings said, and Ottawa’s excessive control over communication is «really poisoning the science environment within government.»
«An iron curtain has been draped over communication of science in the last five to six years,» he said.
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.
The Privy Council Office has «management responsibility» for the commission and decided Miller should not give media interviews about her study because of the ongoing inquiry, said PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet.
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