The following commentary appeared in the Toronto Star on Friday, February 15, 2013. It can be viewed in its original context here. Jeffrey Hutchings is Killam Professor in the Faculty of Science at Dalhousie University and the president of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution.
“In my view, scientists should stick to science.”
This was a Conservative MP's response to my testimony at a 2012 parliamentary committee after I'd chaired a Royal Society of Canada expert panel on how climate change, fisheries, and aquaculture affect Canadian ocean biodiversity. Among other things, our report concluded that constructive and respectful debate on salmon aquaculture is hindered by a lack of full disclosure of diseases on fish farms, a concern echoed by Justice Bruce Cohen in his October 2012 report on Fraser River sockeye salmon.
I was making the point that science plays a key role in informing, strengthening, and assessing the effectiveness of science-based management practices and government policy. Judging from his unsolicited advice that I should “stick to science,” Manitoba MP and committee member Robert Sopuck didn't see things this way.
Perhaps scientists should be seen, but not always heard. This would be consistent with a recent tightening of the near-Gordian communications knot that controls how federal scientists interact with society .
Since 2006 the federal government has been shortening the leash on its scientists. In some departments researchers are now not allowed to speak about their studies without ministerial (meaning political) permission. And in several documented instances that permission has been refused. In February, Fisheries and Oceans Canada raised additional non-science barriers to the publication of scientific research.
I can personally attest to the destructive nature of such policies. In the late 1990s, one decade before the current communications noose was deployed, government research with which I was involved was censored at an international conference. Our work indicated that seals did not cause the collapse of Canada's cod fisheries. Why was it censored? Our science was at odds with what federal fisheries spokespersons had been saying to Canadians.
Let's be clear. When you inhibit the communication of science, you inhibit science. The legitimacy of scientific findings depends crucially on unfettered engagement, review, and discussion among interested individuals, including members of the public.
And when you inhibit science, you inhibit the acquisition of knowledge. Is this something that best serves society? The Royal Society of Canada and Democracy Watch, among reams of others, think not.
Refreshingly, a Scandinavian with impeccable credentials provides an enlightened perspective. Gro Harlem Brundtland, three times Prime Minister of Norway and chair of the renowned Brundtland Commission on sustainable development, argues that:
“If we compromise on scientific facts and evidence, repairing nature will be enormously costly – if possible at all. Politics that disregard science and knowledge will not stand the test of time.”
If politics that diminish and devalue science should not stand the test of time, then neither should politically motivated barriers to the communication of science.
The Canadian government's current communication controls are clearly not the hallmark of a confident, mature, and progressive society. We can and should do much, much better.