David Suzuki: Muzzling scientists is an assault on democracy

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      Access to information is a basic foundation of democracy. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms also gives us “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication.”

      We must protect these rights. As we alter the chemical, physical, and biological properties of the biosphere, we face an increasingly uncertain future, and the best information we have to guide us comes from science. That scientists—and even librarians—are speaking out against what appear to be increasing efforts to suppress information shows we have cause for concern. The situation has become so alarming that Canada’s Information Commissioner is investigating seven government departments in response to a complaint that they’re “muzzling” scientists.

      The submission from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre and Democracy Watch alleges that “the federal government is preventing the media and the Canadian public from speaking to government scientists for news stories – especially when the scientists’ research or point of view runs counter to current Government policies on matters such as environmental protection, oil sands development, and climate change” and that this “impoverishes the public debate on issues of significant national concern.”

      The complaint and investigation follow numerous similar charges from scientists and organizations such as the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the World Federation of Science Journalists, and publications such as the science journal Nature. Hundreds of scientists marched on Parliament Hill last July to mark “the death of evidence”. 

      The list of actions prompting these grievances is long. It includes shutting the world-renowned Experimental Lakes Area, axing the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, eliminating funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences and prohibiting federal scientists from speaking about research on subjects ranging from ozone to climate change to salmon.

      All of this has been taking place as the federal government guts environmental laws and cuts funding for environmental departments through its omnibus budget bills. It has justified those massive environmental policy changes in part by saying the review process was slow and inefficient, but research by scientists at the University of Toronto, published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, “found no evidence that regulatory review in Canada was inefficient, even when regulators had an ongoing load of over 600 projects for review at any given time.”

      The government appears determined to challenge any information, person, or organization that could stand in the way of its plans for rapid tar sands expansion and transport and sale of raw resources as quickly as possible to any country with money.

      The results have been astounding. An Environment Canada document leaked to the Climate Action Network states, “Media coverage of climate change science, our most high-profile issue, has been reduced by over 80 per cent.”

      In the environmental movement, we’ve become accustomed to attacks and attempts by government and its proxies to silence us. We’ve been called everything from “radicals” to “un-Canadian” to “money-launderers”. Federal Treasury Board president Tony Clement even blamed the David Suzuki Foundation and me for opposition to the proposed TransCanada west-to-east pipeline, a project we have yet to say a word about! Some of the ongoing media slurs have been even sillier. Are they that threatened by credible scientific research that might stand in the way of their current liquidation policies?

      Canada is a large country with the longest coastline in the world, and is particularly sensitive to climate fluctuations, especially in economic sectors like agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and tourism. We aspire to be an “energy superpower”. Surely, understanding the effects of climate change should be at the top of our agenda.

      In a truly open and democratic society, ideas, policies, and legislation are exposed to scrutiny, debate, and criticism. Information is shared freely. Governments support research that makes the country stronger by ensuring its policies are in the best interests of the people. A government that values its citizens more than its industrial backers does not fear information and opposition.

      Countries where governments hold a tight rein on information, shut down or stifle research that runs counter to their priorities, and demonize and attack opponents are never good places to live. We have to make sure Canada doesn’t become one. 

      Comments

      12 Comments

      Lee L.

      Apr 9, 2013 at 4:53pm

      "Countries where governments hold a tight rein on information, shut down or stifle research that runs counter to their priorities, and demonize and attack opponents are never good places to live"

      Jeez Dave, I have to agree. Trouble is you are one of worst offenders in that regard. Pot meet kettle.

      M. Smith

      Apr 9, 2013 at 6:08pm

      Jeez, Lee you are a dick of enormous proportions, which in this case is not in any way complimentary. Your post makes no sense, as it is not backed up with any information, let alone a fact that would support your suggestion that one of the country's preeminent scientists and communicators is guilty of oppressing the voice of others in society.

      Keyboard licensing: an idea who's time may yet come.

      Forest

      Apr 9, 2013 at 8:19pm

      I like the placard in the front of the photo-op of Harper. Jobs? Growth? Prosperity? Try cheap Chinese labour in the new Petrol-State.

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      James H.

      Apr 9, 2013 at 8:34pm

      From my understanding the reccomendations to end politicized science funding tied to the UN and foreign entanglement banking schemes came from CSIS reports dating back until the 80s. You don't have the right type of study you don't get the right sort of funding. It used to be called the greenhouse conspiracy, now you get called out as CONservative for speaking out against one sided scientific debates. Or even bringing up hydrogen as a fuel. The Suzuki types hate logic, progress, and free enterprise. Or anything that would threaten funding for awareness and not real solid solutions.

      Uncle Jack

      Apr 9, 2013 at 9:16pm

      Coming from Mr. Suzuki, who cannot keep his mouth shut, yells to everyone who does not agree with him, and cashes fat fees for his canned speeches, it sounds like a broken record!!

      And boring!!

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      ex-Haney guy

      Apr 9, 2013 at 9:28pm

      Jeez David, I have to agree. Trouble is...no I just have to agree.

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      JN

      Apr 9, 2013 at 10:20pm

      Please, explain the "trouble" @LEE L.

      Comparing David Suzuki's control over information (examples?) and his attack on opponents ( attacks, as in presenting evidence based facts?) to that of the Harper Government, which constricts media access, and in turn restricts the publics access, to Canadian scientists, is irrelevant, even if Mr. Suzuki was a hypocrite.

      Jeebus. Weak.

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      Huh?

      Apr 9, 2013 at 10:40pm

      @Lee L......huh?

      Betterthanezra

      Apr 10, 2013 at 8:21am

      Oh look, six comments on not one that addresses the content of and arguments in the article. That makes me think the problems run deeper than Suzuki, and the research he uses to back his arguments, would suggest. Besides having a government that employs the most anti-democratic practices to promote its destructive agenda, we have some media outlets (Sun News et al) and probably some paid trolls that rely on idiotic ad hominem attacks rather than engaging in constructive dialogue and debate. This serves not only to muddy the conversations we need to be having; it also turns people away who might otherwise engage.

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      Karen Blair

      Apr 10, 2013 at 8:43am

      It is entirely different for a scientist to disagree with other scientists and to engage in debates - even heated debates - than it is for a GOVERNMENT to silence the debate entirely. Science and research function on open and public debate and disagreement. If everyone agreed, science would rarely move forward. But that is exactly what Harper's Government is attempting to accomplish - to have all the scientists "agree" and those who don't agree will be silenced. Once everyone agrees with the Harper Government's understanding of science, science will seek to move forward and the government will no longer have to deal with the pesky annoyance of science contradicting their official policies!
      There is not pot calling the kettle black here. It is a scientist, with the right to debate and disagree with his colleagues, attacking the government for attempting to silence such debates. Suzuki's disagreement with other scientists - no matter how he delivers his disagreement - is in no way comparable to Harper's attempts to control the information that is shared by Canadian scientists.