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The Muzzling of Government Scientists: A Memoir

A science journalist reflects on the relationship between government and science media during the “War on Science”, and what has changed since.

Carolyn Brown is an independent scientific and medical writer, editor and consultant. She has worked in the federal government, as a freelancer and consultant to government and non-government clients, and as a medical reporter. She has volunteered with Evidence for Democracy over the years.

It was June of 2010 when a group of science journalists realized that something was wrong in the federal government.

I had just left NRC Research Press, a scientific journal publishing operation in the National Research Council, to launch a freelance career. For my first freelance assignment, I was writing a story on criticism of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) advice to prevent H1N1 influenza for the Canadian Medical Association Journal’s news service. I had interviewed Dr. Donald Low, a microbiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, who said that PHAC’s advice to wash your hands was of little use in preventing influenza, which is airborne, and that the evidence pointed to using N-95 masks.

I asked for a response from PHAC, but the media relations (or, really, media obstruction) staffer said that the agency would not respond. Undaunted, I asked again. The staffer asked whether we were planning to publish Low’s views. I said yes, and the staffer sent an email with some general information from the PHAC website. When I pointed out that the email did not answer my questions, I received another response with a slightly more direct answer, but with no name attributed to the response.

It was later, at the Canadian Association of Science Writers (now the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada) conference, that I realized my fellow science journalists had similar stories — that media relations staff were refusing requests for interviews, or emailed vague comments that were not attributed to a specific individual. I heard stories of how government scientists were not allowed to put out media releases about their findings, or to speak to journalists.

At the same conference, the closing speaker was a Deputy Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, who headed a group of science-based federal departments. In the Q&A session following her talk, journalists demanded answers. Journalists asked why they could not obtain interviews with scientists, and why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was no longer issuing media releases on its science. I also shared my experience, and asked: “what will you do to improve the communication of government science to the public?” I received a round of applause.

Kathryn O’Hara, who was the president of the Canadian Association of Science Writers at the time, and a professor in the School of Journalism at Carleton University, said she would continue contact with the Deputy Minister to try to improve relations between the government and science media.

But her efforts were stymied. The Deputy Minister soon quit, and the situation worsened.

This blog post does not have room for all the stories that I and other journalists experienced in the following five years. But I’ll mention three stories below.

I was doing a story on avian influenza as a potential human health threat and asked the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for an interview with a scientist who had documented the spread of avian influenza among chickens. At first, CFIA challenged my request, and then wouldn’t let me speak to the scientist who had written the paper. Finally, I was allowed to speak with a senior veterinarian, but only with a media relations staffer listening in on the phone call.

Once, I asked for an interview with Dr. Theresa Tam, years before she became the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, because she had served on International Health Regulations emergency committees. I was covering the changing international public health regime, and I thought the fact that Canada had a representative on such committees would be a good story. I had interviewed officials at the World Health Organization several times. But at PHAC, the staff denied my interview request, and even questioned why I was asking for an interview.

The most ridiculous example I have is about a story I covered on the two contaminants that Health Canada sampling had shown were causing health problems in Canadians — cadmium and arsenic. Health Canada scientists had written a journal article on their findings, and I asked to speak to the authors. My request was denied. Luckily, the article had a U.S.-based co-author who agreed to an interview. I was able to go ahead with the article, but only by speaking to a U.S. scientist about research carried out by Health Canada.

The 2015 federal election brought hope. The new government announced that scientists could speak to the media. Government departments brought in policies for transparent science, and a Chief Science Advisor was appointed. Evidence for Democracy had called for these measures, and the new government treated E4D’s demands as a checklist, doing everything on the list.

But the reality for journalists took a while to shift. As many of us soon discovered, some of the working-level media relations staff had bought into the Conservative government’s attitude. In some cases, the media relations contacts admitted to me that they had been hired during the previous decade and didn’t know any other way to work.

After the 2015 election, the first time I asked for a response from a government department, I still received a meaningless email. My editor suggested that I ask for at least a name to attribute the quote to. I had to explain to the media relations staffer that, normally, even emailed statements were attributable to someone. The staffer got me a name, so that was a baby step forward.

The next time I called a government department, I went further and asked for an interview. And I received one, without any “minders” on the call too.

The next time I called, I wanted an interview with an expert from the National Microbiology Laboratory. The media relations staffer I was speaking to was with Health Canada, which was well-known for denying interviews. When I explained the story I wanted to do, the staffer asked, without prompting, “Would you like an interview?” Yes! Yes, I would.

It hasn’t always been clear sailing since 2015, but the tone is now more collaborative, and the science is much more transparent. But it remains important to remember how science was silenced, and that scientists were muzzled. We must never again allow the government to slip into an Orwellian mindset in which evidence is suppressed. As philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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