Muzzling Science ≠ Evidence Based Policy

Despite a volume of high quality research in Canada, there remains critical areas in public health where a gap between the best available evidence and public policies persists. This morning, as most mornings, I woke up listening to CBC Radio1.  Today, once again, the national news headline is about the Harper government exercising its heavy hand by bullying and muzzling scientists.  “Scientist muzzling probed by information commissioner: Complaint was filed by Democracy Watch and University of Victoria on Feb. 20.”   The complaint filed with the Information Commissioner’s Office includes government practices of suppressing research results, closing (nearly new) research labs, and restricting or prohibiting government scientists from speaking directly to the media and the Canadian public.

Scientist muzzling and the politicization of knowledge is not a new phenomenon however it’s something you expect to hear happening in a non-democratic country, not in Canada.  Over the past seven years, Canada’s reputation in this realm has eroded and our credibility in the international community is waning.  One of the world’s leading scientific journals criticized the current government’s “manifest disregard for science” in Canada. These comments were published in an editorial in the British journal Nature: “Science has long faced an uphill battle for recognition in Canada, but the slope became steeper when the Conservative government was elected in 2006.”

Muzzling has become a common trait of the Harper government and has popped up, once again, in news headlines several times in the past week. The federal government engages in “unacceptable political interference in the communication of government science,” says the head of a group that represents both government press officers and science journalists.  Further to this, Dr. Stephen Hwang, a St Michael’s Hospital research scientist, has publicly stated, “I strongly oppose the distortion of scientific evidence as has been the policy of the current federal government, and we can no longer stand idle while ideology trumps scientific proof.”

The Harper government has a history of trying to shush researchers with whom they morally, ideologically, or politically disagree.  This was no more evident than with two public health initiatives related to drug users and prisoners in British Columbia.  In Oct 2008, there were two open letters to the government, signed by 186 scientists, protesting the “misrepresentation and suppression” of research related to Vancouver’s supervised injection site and the halting of a pilot project that provided prisoners with a safe way to obtain tattoos.

Why should we care about research on drug users and prisoners? Several reasons…  Most research in Canada is funded by tax revenues, either in the form of research grants or direct employment by the government. As a taxpayer, I have the right to see and hear the results of the research I am funding.  Secondly, investment in science and technology is vital to driving the economic engine of a country and makes us competitive in the global arena.  Also, Canada will start to experience a brain drain if scientists feel their research is more useful and relevant in other places.  Finally, by ignoring and/or suppressing research, it’s hard to believe that policymaking is evidenced based. Policies made without consideration of evidence create confusion and inconsistency. It’s difficult to justify to taxpayers how funds are being allocated which leads to mistrust.  “With government, science communication with the public is particularly important because it’s usually more relevant, than university research, to people’s everyday lives and concerns, and may drive policies that affect their lives directly,” said Prof. Normand Mousseau, former communications director for the Canadian Association of Physicists, to CBC news on Sept 29 2010.

Complaints about muzzling are not allegations: they are well-documented facts that we’ve known about for years. Amazing that it has taken this long to investigate. Perhaps the information commissioner is also concerned about the repercussions associated with seeking and speaking the truth.

Links to relevant articles:

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/mark-stabile/evidence-based-policy-in-canada_b_1671301.html

http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/04/03/sk-saskatoon-scientist-discusses-muzzling-concerns-1402.html

http://www.cbc.ca/morningedition/episode/2013/04/03/saskatchewan-scientist-says-she-was-muzzled/index.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/watchdog-to-probe-alleged-muzzling-of-scientists/article10610508/

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