As world’s top scientists meet in Vancouver, Ottawa rapped for ‘muzzling’ scientists

·National Affairs Contributor

At a time when Canada is playing host to some of the world's big scientific brains, some of the country's scientists are accusing the Conservative government of muzzling them.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is holding its annual meeting in Vancouver starting this week, attracting scientists from more than 50 countries, the Globe and Mail reports.

It's the first time in three decades the prestigious organization has met in Canada.

"It's a great chance for us to show the world how far Canadian research has come forward, since the conference was last here in 1981," Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, told the Globe.

The multi-disciplinary conference will hear from speakers on topics ranging from autism to obesity to new technologies for tracking marine mammals, the Globe says.

The theme this year is the globalization of science. Countries who see science as the key to progress need to work together, association CEO Alan Leshner told the Globe.

"Multinational collaboration is the norm. It is no longer an exception," he said. "Even though governments compete with each other, national scientific communities are really much less competitive."

But some Canadian conference attendees are criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government's handling of scientific research.

Prof. Thomas Pedersen of the University of Victoria saw a political motive in the government's penchant for information management.

"The prime minister 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 told BBC News.

"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."

The BBC reported that allegations of "muzzling" were raised at a conference session discussing the impact of a media protocol the Conservatives introduced in 2008 requiring all interview requests for government scientists get bureaucratic approval. The process is slow, journalists are often asked to submit written questions in advance and government media minders sometimes sit in on the interview, critics said.

Prof. Andrew Weaver, an environmental scientist at the University of Victoria, called the protocol "Orwellian," a policy that keeps the public in the dark.

"The only information they are given is that which the government wants, which will then allow a supporting of a particular agenda," he said.

One federal official told the BBC that communicating science information is a priority.

"In 2011, Fisheries and Oceans publicly issued 286 science advisory reports documenting our research on Canada's fisheries; our scientists respond to approximately 380 science-based media calls every year," said a spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The department was embroiled controversy not long ago over allegations it muzzled a scientist whose research exposed a potential link between a cancerous virus that can afflict farmed fish with the possible infection of West Coast wild salmon stocks.

"The department works daily to ensure it provides the public with timely, accurate, objective and complete information about our policies, programs, services and initiatives, in accordance with the Federal Government's Communications Policy," the Fisheries spokeswoman told BBC.

But the department turned down a BBC request to interview the scientist at the centre of the controversy.

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