Margaret Atwood on the Muzzling of Canadian Government Scientists

May 9, 2013 | 4:58 pm
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Tuesday aired a short talk from author and critic Margaret Atwood on two critical issues: the muzzling of Canadian government scientists and the importance of collecting adequate scientific information about threats to public health and safety. It is well worth four minutes of your day to listen in, and I’ve transcribed her remarks below. 

margaret-atwoodMany have alleged that the Harper government has severely clamped down on the ability of Canadian government scientists to speak freely. After many rumblings, the alarm was sounded in early 2012, when UCS Senior Scientist and scientific integrity expert Dr. Francesca Grifo joined colleagues north of the border on a panel at the AAAS meeting in Vancouver. That summer, two thousand Canadian scientists went so far as to stage a lab coat march on the Canadian parliament. On a related note, federal librarians were given a new code of conduct that significantly discourages them from speaking their opinions–even on personal time.

The situation has escalated further since February 2013 when the University of Victoria and the Canadian NGO Democracy Watch issued a 128-page report detailing the muzzling charges and asked the Candian Information Commissioner to investigate the muzzling charges. She has agreed to do so. For more reading, see this article in Maclean’s  and this piece from David Suzuki.

Here’s what Ms. Atwood had to say:
“We live in difficult times. Of course, so has everyone down through the ages, but I’d argue that our times are difficult in new and different ways. Others at this event will address many of our difficulties or else they’ve already addressed them.
“I would like to speak about just one: the muzzling of the public servant Canadian scientists that we, the citizens pay for (applause)…and the shutting down of our research facilities across the country.
“This issue gets less attention than most, though the lack of attention is perhaps due to the fact that many people don’t understand how research science works and how it is linked to our own health and well-being. But it is a crucial issue, and the way our scientists are being treated, and the way our basic research facilities are being torched, especially those that monitor such things as air and water quality, go to the heart of what we are still pleased to call a democracy.
“If the powers that be don’t want us to know these things, they have two ways of keeping us in the dark. First, they can threaten the scientists working for us and paid for by us. They can slap on a muzzle, forbidding them to talk to anyone, such as reporters, unless they have cleared what they are going to say with a political vetter first.
“This has been done in Canada with the intent of keeping the scientists on message with the Conservative government’s agenda. See no evidence, hear no evidence, speak no evidence. That’s the policy. What we don’t know won’t hurt them.
“There are problems with objective, evidence-based science as well as every other human activity. Large companies aren’t the only entities to harbor dishonest activities. Science, too, has its cheats and liars. And yes, the collective entity called science sometimes gets things wrong, honestly.
“But real science is relentlessly self-critical. It relies on peer-review and the replicability of experiments. And self-criticism can only operate where there is freedom of expression. We must allow our scientists to speak freely. And very importantly, it is our right in a democracy to hear what our scientists have discovered.
“Taxpayers paid for this knowledge. Give us what we paid for.”

Photo: Lesekreis/Wikimedia Commons