The Canadian government suppresses scientific research and stonewalls journalists in an attempt to protect policy, leading researchers said today.

At the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Vancouver, Canadian reporters and professors outlined examples of how the Conservative government’s strict media policy limits public discourse on vital findings.

“We believe that muzzling scientists who work for the public good threatens the safety of all Canadians, undermines our democracy and our country’s ability to meet its full potential,” Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, said in a press release.

To shed light on the situation, the union representing 23,000 federal scientists and researchers held a webcast called Unmuzzling Government Scientists: How to Re-open the Discourse.

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The Canadian Science Writers’ Association organized a panel discussion that featured Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria and Postmedia’s Margaret Munro.

Chief among the examples was the Conservative government’s refusal to allow a leading researcher to speak about potentially devastating tactics by the commercial salmon fishery. 

Government media relations staff told journalists they couldn’t interview Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics for the Department for Fisheries and Oceans, even after the journal Science published her research.

Miller's findings pointed to cancer in western Canadian salmon, and a possible link to fish farms. Government representatives said Miller would have to testify in a judicial inquiry, so it would be inappropriate for her to give interviews.

“The more controversial the story, the less likely you are to talk to the scientists,” Munro told BBC. “They (government media relations staff) just stonewall. If they don’t like the question you don’t get an answer.”

The experts also talked about suppressed findings about a hole in the ozone layer above the arctic and radiation levels in Canada after the Japanese tsunami.

Prof. Thomas Weaver at University of Victoria said that shortly after the Tories took office in 2008, researchers started to notice changes in how they interacted with the press.

“Prime Minister (Stephen Harper) is keen to keep control of the message, I think to ensure that the government won’t be embarrassed by scientific findings of its scientists that run counter to sound environmental stewardship,” he said in a BBC article. “I suspect the federal government would prefer that its scientists don’t discuss research that points out just how serious the climate change challenge is.”

Environmental groups condemn Canada for withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord, ramming pipeline projects through environmental approvals and for not doing enough to counteract carbon emissions from oilsands operations in northern Alberta.

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