WATCH ABOVE: Dr. Steve Camapana, who left his job at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and now works in Iceland, explains the roadblocks the federal government has put in place to control what scientists say and how they conduct their research.
TORONTO – “Unlike Canadian scientists, I don’t have to ask permission to talk to you.”
That was one of the first things National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist Pieter Tans said when I called to reach him for comment about rising carbon dioxide levels reaching historic levels.
The topic itself was controversial: climate change is a hot-button topic for many. But getting in touch with NOAA was easy. In total, there were five email exchanges, all providing information about the topic and the arrangement of the interview.
Compare that to trying to get response from a Canadian federal department.
Steve Campana, a former government biologist, has spoken out about the muzzling of Canadian government scientists.
Campana has been in the spotlight as a result of scientists’ unions rallying in Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver to protest the “muzzling of scientists” in public service. It was the restrictions from the government which lead to Campana leaving his position to work in Iceland.
While I’ve had many frustrating dealings with various federal agencies, my most recent experience came as I was working on a story about ways Canadians could protect themselves as severe weather season approached. I wanted to mention the new federal national emergency warning system, Alert Ready. I reached out to Environment Canada for more information.
On April 16, I called and left a message on Environment Canada’s media line. I also sent the following to Environment Canada’s media email, another form of contact that they ask reporters to use for requests.
I’m looking to speak to someone about what emergency warning systems are available to Canadians in the event of a natural disaster, such as tornadoes, severe storms, etc. I’d like a telephone interview (not an emailed response), please.
My deadline is tomorrow at noon.
No one called me back that day.
The following day — a Friday — I left a message explaining that I’d followed their procedure to email the media line and no one had responded. Within minutes, someone called me back saying that I would be contacted that day and the contact was “drafting” a response. I repeated my desire to speak with someone directly, not receive an email response. I was told that this would happen and that it would be before my noon deadline.
Noon came and went.
Finally, at 3:30 p.m. on April 17, a representative called.
After expressing my exasperation at being unable to speak with someone by deadline even though I called a day earlier, I was told that there was only one person who I could speak to. In all of Environment Canada.
Even when I spoke to a meteorologist, he was hesitant to expand on the program.
While this example could be written off as a failure in communications, this experience isn’t new. The Canadian Press wrote a story in 2014 about a request to speak with Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientist Max Bothwell about “rock snot,” or algae, resulted in 110 pages of emails to and from 16 federal communications staffers.
Calling a meteorologist to find out about weather watches or warnings isn’t a problem. They are usually ready and willing to answer questions. The problem arises when you try to contact a federal scientist directly. First you need to contact the media line. And then it can take hours or even days to get a response. And when you do get a response, more often than not, a spokesperson emails you an answer that isn’t useful or they are unavailable.
After this story was published, Scott French, spokesperson for the Minister of State (Science and Technology) sent me an email with a statement outlining the government’s position
“While Ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments, government scientists and experts are readily available to share their research with the media and the public. For instance, Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada fielded over 3000 media inquiries last year, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans fielded 834, Natural Resources Canada fielded over 470, and the National Research Council fielded almost 370. Overall, Canadian federal departments and agencies produce over 4,000 science publications per year. Canada, meanwhile, is ranked number one in the G-7 for our support for scientific research and development at our colleges, universities and other research institutes.”