Canadian Scientists Are Speaking Out After 9 Years of Censorship - Atlas Obscura
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Canadian Scientists Are Speaking Out After 9 Years of Censorship

It’s been awhile.

Canada’s Minister for Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, center, who announced a change to the rules for scientists in November. (Photo: Michael Ignatieff/CC BY-ND 2.0)

For nine years, federal scientists in Canada couldn’t talk to the press. Well, they could, but only after going through a dizzying amount of federal bureaucracy, a situation that turned into functional censorship.

Why? You can thank former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who instituted the policy shortly after his ascendancy in 2006. A huge proponent of exploiting the country’s natural resources like oil and gas, Harper apparently feared that some of his own scientists would give reporters negative assessments of the environmental impacts of the country’s energy work, according to Nature

So even the smallest media requests had to be funneled through government communications offices, and were often denied. But all of that changed in November, after Justin Trudeau was elected prime minister, partly on a platform to open the government up to citizens more. (The U.S. has also come under criticism that it doesn’t always make its scientists available to the media, and problems are said to linger even after President Barack Obama vowed in 2009 to make government more transparent.)

The Canadian government was relaxing its rules on speaking to the press, Navdeep Bains, the Minister for Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, said then. Nature now reports that media requests are now handled similarly to the way they were before Stephen Harper. Scientists merely need to inform their supervisors if they speak with a reporter. 

Which means, of course, that the scientists are also free to talk about things other than science, like, say, the old policy of generally not allowing scientists to speak with reporters. 

One researcher Nature spoke with, for example, compared scientists under the Harper regime with Soviet scientists in the 1970s, who would attend academic meetings with KGB escorts. 

Others said the cone of silence from the Harper administration was still not totally gone. Many officials remain from the previous government, accustomed to the Harper way of doing things.

But even while the new media rules are taking shape, scientists said the change was stark—and welcome.

“It was like a weight was being lifted,” one scientist told Nature