Myth or fact: Is the Harper government really muzzling scientists?

Canada Politics
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (C) is shown a research lab at McGill University by Dr Nahum Sonenberg (2nd R, partially obscured), Dr Benoit Mulsant (R ), Dr Naomi Azrieli (2nd L) and Andre Chagnon (L ) in Montreal, Quebec, May 1, 2014. Harper announced on Thursday that the Government will be supporting five new research projects in the areas of Alzheimer prevention and Autism under its Canada Brain Research Fund. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS)

There’s been a lot chatter, over the past several years, about the Harper government being secretive and antagonistic against the media. 

One of the things that gets a lot of attention are the allegations  from the opposition parties, from federal scientists and from the media  that the Tories are muzzling scientists presumably as a means to hide information to further their goal of oil oil oil. 

Well a new report  penned by the Evidence For Democracy  backs that narrative. 

The report’s authors looked at 16 federal departments and came to the conclusion that “government media policies do not support open and timely communication between scientists and journalists.”

The worst department, according to the report, was Natural Resources Canada. 

"NRCan policies emphasize message control and place restrictions on who may interact with the media. Media relations will develop messages together with the spokesperson and communications managers; approval is then required from the Minister’s Director of Communications and, in some cases, from the Privy Council Office."

The authors deduce that U.S. scientists are more free to talk to media and, to their credit, they offer some good suggestions to facilitate better communications. 

[ Related: NDP tables motion to end muzzling of Canada’s scientists ]

But, according one media relations expert, the Harper government’s PR strategy is simply prudent with a 24/7 media cycle. 

"As opposed to what most people would think ( ie that the NRcan is hiding something)  the reality is that it takes a while to gather all the communications pieces in a puzzle," Matt Wilcox of the Wilcox Group told Yahoo Canada News in an email exchange. 

"One scientist may not know the bigger picture or have all the facts, or they may have a particular focus which is not relevant to today’s story. Or worse they are off topic or so specific that it doesn’t give the full answer to educate."

Wilcox adds that any organization  government or otherwise  to put out a well thought out, researched and developed response. 

"No matter what organization you are in there should be no surprises.  NOT easy to do in today’s 24/7 [where] everyone communicates with every social media tool available to them” society," she said.

"Politics aside, no one should knee jerk react to anything unless there is solid data behind the answer.  It is not about secrets …it is about giving a full and in-depth answer to the question.  And most questions don’t have a solid-pat easy answer."

In other words, the government wants to ensure that there aren’t false or multiple message being shared to media. 

[ More Politics: Anti-abortion group defends itself over latest ‘graphic’ flyer featuring Tory MP ]

As for the Tories, they say they are being transparent with regard to science.  

"Canadian federal departments and agencies produce over 4,000 science publications every year," Minister of State for Science and Technology Ed Holder said in the House of Commons on Wednesday.

"Environment Canada fielded nearly 2,500 media inquiries and published about 700 peer reviewed articles this past year. Fisheries and Oceans Canada…fielded 1,600 media inquiries and published 500 peer reviewed articles last year."

"When it comes to science and technology, this is side of the House we’re interested in facts."

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