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Since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won power in 2006, there has been a gradual tightening of media protocols for federal scientists and other government workers. Researchers who once would have felt comfortable responding freely and promptly to journalists are now required to direct inquiries to a media-relations office, which demands written questions in advance, and might not permit scientists to speak. Canadian journalists have documented several instances in which prominent researchers have been prevented from discussing published, peer-reviewed literature. Policy directives and e-mails obtained from the government through freedom of information reveal a confused and Byzantine approach to the press, prioritizing message control and showing little understanding of the importance of the free flow of scientific knowledge.

You know things have gotten bad when the largest and most prestigious scientific journal calls you out for muzzling scientists. Twice. International organizations are routinely criticizing the Conservatives for bizarrely-restrictive rules and deep cuts.

An open letter from the Union of Concerned Scientists calls out the Harper administration for the “excessive and growing restrictions” being placed on scientists’ ability to publish and publicly communicate federally funded work, along with the “dramatic defunding” of government science programs in general.

“Canada’s leadership in basic research, environmental, health, and other public science is in jeopardy,” the letter, addressed to Harper, reads. “We urge you to restore government science funding and the freedom and opportunities to communicate these findings internationally. ”

The muzzling in particular has gotten ridiculous.

In one instance from 2014, a request from The Canadian Press to speak to federal government scientist Max Bothwell about his work on algae led to a 110-page email exchange to and from 16 different federal government communications officers.

In the end, Bothwell was not interviewed before the Canadian Press article was published.

As former Parks Canada staff, we are deeply troubled by the seemingly unjustified and arbitrary firing in mid-June of Dr. John Wilmshurst, who was the Resource Conservation Manager in Jasper National Park. […]

The reason for Dr. Wilmshurst’s firing is unknown but it appears consistent with the purging of science-based management taking place in the national parks of Canada.
Like a spectre, the threat of these seemingly arbitrary firings has haunted not just the corridors of Parks Canada but also those of other federal departments. As those who dare to speak up on issues related to the ecological integrity of the national parks or the commemorative integrity of the national historic sites are removed from their positions, a deep fear is instilled to ensure that those remaining toe the party line.

A 2013 PIPSC survey of around 4,000 of its science members found 90 percent of them felt they weren’t allowed to speak with media about their work, while nearly half reported instances where their department “suppressed information, leading to incomplete, inaccurate, or misleading impressions by the public.” And 25 percent reported being asked to exclude or alter information for “non-scientific” reasons. The survey concludes “a chill has fallen on federal government science and scientists.”

scientists with the Canada Ice Service agency wanted to give a press conference about the Arctic’s sea ice, which had shrunk 70,000 square miles below its last record in 2007. The scientists needed federal approval from nine different levels, including the director of the Ice Service and the environment minister’s office. The event never happened. As new documents obtained by Canada’s Postmedia News show, it was cancelled by “ministerial services,” the sixth level of approval. No explanation was given. […]

In 2012, Ottawa Citizen’s Tom Spears contacted both NASA and Canada’s National Research Council in 2012 to request information for a story about snowfall. A report from the Environmental Law Center documents how NASA responded within 15 minutes, but it took eleven Canadian federal employees 50 emails to decide whether the journalist’s story would be “positive/informative.” Eventually, the reporter received “approved lines.”


Harper and the Conservative party have a deep-seated fear of evidence and expertese. They must be strongly opposed by everyone with any level of respect for reality.