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Federal scientists eager to share their research now that muzzles are off

It used to be that if you wanted to talk to a federal scientist who was monitoring salmon stocks in B.C. or studying the impacts of climate change on glaciers, you just called them up.

Sometimes they would answer the phone in the field or at a busy conference and they'd interrupt their work to answer a reporter's questions, feeling a responsibility to communicate their findings to the public.

They were the experts, after all, and who better to speak than those who had spent years studying complex issues, using public funding?

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And then Stephen Harper became Prime Minister and a dark curtain fell across Canadian science.

Under the Conservatives, access to federal scientists was restricted by a government policy that required scientists to contact media managers whenever approached by a reporter. Often, reporters were questioned by government public-relations experts before a decision was made about whether a scientist would be made available for an interview.

The government's media managers wanted to know the line of questioning in advance. Sometimes they'd ask for questions to be submitted by e-mail, and then hours or days later you'd get not a helpful scientist on the phone, but a written statement that seemed drafted by a team of bureaucrats.

Often, requests to speak to scientists were simply denied. That was usually the case if you wanted to talk to someone about climate change, or about radiation monitors run by Health Canada, or about viral infections in salmon.

Research by Vancouver-based science writer Margaret Munro revealed the Privy Council Office, the secretariat of the federal cabinet, was involved in decisions about when scientists would be allowed to talk and when they would be muzzled.

One of those silenced on orders from the Privy Council was Kristi Miller-Saunders, a molecular geneticist in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans who has been doing ground-breaking work on the West Coast predicting the spawning failure of wild salmon.

But last week, Dr. Miller-Saunders and all her colleagues across the country learned they are no longer required to get approval from media handlers before talking to the media.

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Science has been freed by the new government in Ottawa, just as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised in the Liberal election platform.

Still, it came as a shock to the scientists who are suddenly released, after all these years, to speak about the topics they are experts on.

"I can say that for me, this is very exciting news," Dr. Miller-Saunders said in an e-mail exchange that was not approved by a media spokesperson.

"I believe that our past inability to get our science out through the media, and sometimes even through public forums, really turned us into second-class citizens in the science arena, and I was terribly embarrassed at having to decline numerous opportunities to speak about my research," she wrote.

"What was perhaps even more frustrating was when stories went ahead about research I had published without [the reporter] being able to speak to me personally, and either got some of the important facts wrong or over-interpreted the science, and I was not able to speak out to correct them."

Denied access to experts, reporters turned to those less informed or got what they could from published research papers, which are often so dense with data that they are difficult to unpack. Scientists like to explain their work and make clear in simple language the complexities of the issues they study.

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That's why reporters want to talk to them, not to pry loose government secrets or embarrass Ottawa.

Mr. Harper's government never understood that. The Conservatives wanted tight control on the message and didn't trust their own experts to be experts.

That's all changed now. Mr. Trudeau has unmuzzled the scientists.

Dr. Miller-Saunders's response when asked if she'd be available for an interview on her latest scientific research? "I look forward to it!"

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About the Author
National correspondent

Mark Hume is a National Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver, writing news and feature stories on a daily basis about his home province of British Columbia. His weekly column, which often challenges the orthodoxy on environmental issues, appears every Monday. More

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