Environment Canada Gags Scientists At Conference

February 25, 2009

By Janet Pelley

In a growing effort to control the message coming out of its research labs, the Canadian government last year warned scientists at Environment Canada (EC) not to speak to the media without permission from the department's press office. The directive was carried to new heights this week when EC scientists were forbidden to talk to this reporter at a public conference.

SEJ protested the gag order last year in a February 14, 2008, letter to Environment Minister John Baird. Baird was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Conservative), who took power on February 6, 2006. SEJ's letter asked for details about the substance of the new rule and requested a written copy of the policy. That letter and a follow-up in May received no reply.

My reporting took a unique hit from the gag rule on February 24 when I attended the 44th Central Canadian Symposium on Water Quality Research, which was cosponsored by Environment Canada and held at the Canadian Centre for Inland Waters in Burlington, Ontario. A freelancer based in Toronto, I sat in on a daylong session on the controversial bisphenol-A (BPA), an estrogenic plastic. Health Canada last year banned BPA from use in baby bottles and is now working on ways to reduce BPA in food. Approached six months ago to participate in the session, Health Canada curiously declined the invitation to attend, according to the conference organizer.

After the morning session, I approached two EC scientists, one of whom had just made a presentation. Nervous laughter ensued when I introduced myself and asked if I could have their business cards and a copy of the presenter's PowerPoint. "What is so funny?" I asked. More nervous laughter. "Is this because you're not supposed to be talking to me?" I asked. They nodded yes and added: "You didn't hear anything of what we just said [about the science of BPA]."

The scientists then pointed out one of EC's press "minders," who was sitting nearby. I asked her if she could give me permission on the spot to interview the presenter. She replied that she could not do that. She said that I should submit a request to EC's media center and they would send me the presenter's PowerPoint. She added that they would arrange interviews for me with the most appropriate experts depending on what my questions were about. She gave me the impression that if I asked for an interview with a specific scientist, they might not grant my request. I asked the press officer for her business card and she declined to give it to me, saying that I should just send an e-mail to media@ec.gc.ca.

I definitely felt that the scientists were afraid to be seen talking to me. When I approached them later in the day, they continued to appear nervous. I was also concerned that by simply talking to them, I might get them into trouble.

"If government scientists are speaking publicly at a symposium, and can't either answer questions or make their PowerPoint presentations available, they're asking for misinterpretation of their remarks," says Tim Wheeler, former president of SEJ and author of the letter to Baird.

The press officer in attendance was effective in discouraging my access to EC scientists. I later sat next to her at lunch and told her that SEJ was concerned about the new policy barring direct access to scientists and that we had written to government officials who never responded to us. She said we should address our concerns to the director general of the communications branch of EC.

As we face the challenges of global warming, energy shortages, and chronic pollution of our bodies, these actions come at a time when transparent discussion of scientific discoveries by government scientists is needed more than ever. Free information exchange between reporters and scientific experts is more important than ensuring smooth coordination of messages that don't result in surprises for politicians.