Oh Canada! The muzzle is coming off scientists

Canadian scientists and journalists will be breathing a sigh of relief this week with the change of government in Canada.

Justin Trudeau
Justin Trudeau

The Harper Government’s protocols governing scientists’ interaction with the media were widely criticised. I remember attending the World Conference of Science Journalists in Qatar a few years back where a session featured a panel of Canadians venting at the way scientists had effectively been put out of reach by restrictive media policies that required ministers’ offices to grant approval before a scientist could talk to a journalist.

The CBC outlines some of the key examples of this.

There have been protests, open letters of condemnation from scientists around the world. But the only thing that was going to make a difference, it seemed, was a change of government.

Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, campaigned on a platform of revoking the rules that had muzzled scientists:

The muzzling of scientists and the Conservative suppression of scientific information is an assault on democracy and an embarrassment to Canada on the international stage. The Liberal Party of Canada is committed to revoking the rules and regulations that muzzle government scientists and allow them to speak freely about their work, with only limited and publicly-stated exceptions. In addition, we will consolidate government science so that it is easily available to the public at-large through a central portal.

He also pledged to create a Chief Science Officer position in the Canadian government:

Further to this, should the Liberal Party of Canada form the next government, we will create a Chief Science Officer, whose mandate will include ensuring that government science is freely available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are appropriately considered when the government makes decisions.

At last year’s conference of chief science advisors from around the world held in Auckland and organised by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, Canada was missing from the line-up.

Trudeau is also promising a return to evidence-based decision making:

Canadians also expect their government to produce policies and programs based on facts. Replacing the long-form census with the National Household Survey is another example of the Harper Conservatives’ short-sighted and ideological approach to governing. This policy hurts Canadians and the government programs and services on which they rely. A Liberal government will immediately restore the mandatory long-form census and make Statistics Canada fully independent. We will ensure evidence-based decision-making is once again a guiding principle of the Canadian government.

It all sounds very promising – a government that let’s scientists speak out in the public interest and which respects evidence and incorporates it into its decision-making. Now we will see if Trudeau can live up to the promise. The global scientific community and the media will no doubt be watching.

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