There's Something Fishy with New DFO Communications Policy

Wed, 2013-02-13 09:14Guest
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There's Something Fishy with New DFO Communications Policy

This article was written by Michael Harris and originally published on iPolitics.

The iPolitics story by Michael Harris published on February 7th, 2013 is untrue. There have been no changes to the Department’s publication policy.”

These words landed on my computer screen like a mortar shell after I wrote a piece outlining disturbing changes to DFO’s publication policy.

The statement, issued by DFO communications staffer Melanie Carkner, went on to list all the ways the department disseminates information — none of which were at issue in my column.


Why would they be? I was writing about how DFO muzzles its scientists, not its herculean public relations effort, which I do not dispute. To me, public relations is the opposite of both journalism and science; it’s what someone wants you to believe, rather than what is shown to be believable by the facts.

One of the people I interviewed for the February 7 article was Jeff Hutchings, former head of the Royal Society of Canada, and Killam professor in the faculty of science at Dalhousie University in Halifax. He is an internationally known fish biologist — a hero in his profession. Hutchings eventually gave me an extensive comment for attribution about the dangers presented by the change in DFO publication policy.

During the catastrophic cod collapse off Newfoundland, while DFO was providing credible evidence that it could not manage an aquarium, Hutchings was standing up for good science. He was one of the only scientists, along with the late Ransom Myers, courageous enough to raise the issue at the heart of the matter: the deadly role that politics played in the cod collapse by suppressing science that collided with policy. I chronicled that process in my book Lament for an Ocean.

It is worth noting that since the 1992 moratorium, the large-scale commercial cod fishery has remained closed at a cost of billions of dollars to the taxpayers of Canada. That outcome flowed from a DFO tainted with politics and corporate priorities — and a minister’s office given far, far too much discretionary power to overrule inconvenient science. The moral of the story? Good science is what saves us from disastrous policy and the astronomical costs associated with getting it wrong.

Good science is what saves us from disastrous policy and the astronomical costs associated with getting it wrong.

After DFO denied that there had been any change in publication policy, I contacted Professor Hutchings again. Having independently confirmed the information I had before he spoke for the record in my original column, he was not circumspect. “What a load of crap,” he said.

That was also the opinion of several scientists I contacted.

Then I was treated to a surprise. Under the headline He Said, she said…who is lying?, I came across a story about my column and DFO’s denial that was posted on the Internet on February 10, 2013. The author of the anonymous posting began with DFO’s statement that “there have been no changes to the Department’s publication policy.”

The very next line, from a person who was obviously a DFO scientist, was this:

Here is the e-mail I got from my division manager on January 29th, 2013: ‘Subject: New Publication Review Committee (PRC) Procedures for C&A Science …’

“This message is regarding the new Publication Review Committee procedures for C&A Science…”

The email noted that the new policy was to take effect on February 1, 2013.

The author included in his Internet post departmental documents outlining the new policy and a detailed administrative chart showing the publication procedures that came into force after February 1. After laying out his information, the author concluded, “You decide who’s being untruthful.”

I second that opinion. If you wish to read for yourself what he had to say, his comments and documents are posted on unmuzzledscience.wordpress.com.

Here, precisely, are the changes that the new policy denied by DFO usher in. Review procedures now apply to any paper with a DFO scientist as an author, instead of just those papers where a DFO scientist was first author.

Secondly, the author of a paper no longer signs off on the copyright on behalf of the Crown. That means that a bureaucrat who did not contribute to the work in question, and did not have a hand in the science undertaken for the paper, now has the power to stop publication by refusing to sign off on the copyright.

Here’s how a university scientist explained his experience with the old system, where he co-produced a paper with a DFO scientist: “We’ve had a manuscript ‘in review’ with DFO waiting for sign-off for almost one year now due to the DFO co-author. I’m about ready to stick the manuscript up on the web and abandon the publication, try to start over with new funding and without DFO involvement.”

Under the new system, DFO can prevent publication by withholding copyright sign-off even if a DFO scientist played only the slightest role in the production of the paper. In other words, the system has gone from bad to worse for scientists and given bureaucrats greater killing power.

Meanwhile, someone in Fisheries and Oceans Canada is channeling their inner dominatrix.

On the heels of DFO’s new publication approval policy, written about in this space last Friday, another new policy landed in the in-boxes of government scientists on February 7.

This new policy, which comes into effect immediately, requires DFO scientists to seek approval from the Regional Director of Science in order to even apply for any researching funding. In concert with the new publication policy, the restraints on Canadian scientists are tightening.

This change in funding policy is a big deal…the Experimental Lakes Area would not have been able to do much of the acid rain research we did, all of the reservoir research we did, and the ongoing METALLICUS experiment. On the other hand, isn’t this what Harper wants? When I was at the Freshwater Institute, DFO was giving me awards for getting this outside funding,” one non-DFO scientist told me.

The big worry among scientists is that the new policies could be used to make it impossible for government scientists to do any “unmanaged” research in the future. That’s because whatever they do now will be tightly controlled from the onset - from funding applications through to the final step of communicating research findings to the scientific community and the general public.

With the rapid development of the Alberta oilsands a key priority of the Harper government, the need for independent science has never been greater. Under the new DFO policies, government could stop publication of studies like the one recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science in the United States. That federally-funded study linked oilsands activity to the deposit of toxic hydrocarbons in Alberta wilderness lakes, closing the door on the claim by industry and government that the pollution could be coming from natural sources.

Question: if scientists wanted to pursue the unfinished business of the oilsands research just published by the National Academy of Science, going beyond hydrocarbons to look at the levels of other contaminants such as heavy metals, mercury or soot, would they get the green light from DFO under the new funding policy?

The Harper record on the science file provides no reassurance that it would. The prime minister has retooled the mission of science institutions like the National Research Council, where pure science has been replaced by applied science of direct benefit to industry.

The PM has said that not everything can be a park. Agreed. But his government has gutted environmental legislation and engaged in particularly destructive meddling in fisheries legislation. Even Conservative cousins like former fisheries ministers John Fraser and Tom Siddon have told the Harper government that the new policies are dangerously ill-considered. They were shunned, their advice was ignored.

Tom Flanagan inadvertently suggested a possible explanation for that cold shoulder in a December 2, 2012 speech at the Salt Spring Forum: “Stephen sees through an economic lens, not an environmental one.”

You may have noticed that there are very few names attached to the quotes in this column. That may have to do with something else Tom Flanagan had to say about his old friend in that speech at the Salt Spring Forum.

After praising the PM’s intelligence, he said of Stephen Harper that he was “morose, secretive, suspicious and vindictive. These may not be traits you want in your next-door neighbour, but they are very useful in politics.”

No one in the scientific community has any reason to doubt the PM’s power to punish. Science budgets have been savaged. Everything has been slashed and corseted with little regard for the unique contribution that science makes to protecting society.

During the uproar caused by the Harper government’s closure of the ELA, some of Canada’s top scientists exchanged e-mails, opining that the shuttering was not about saving a measly $2 million a year. It was about making sure that one of the world’s leading freshwater research facilities didn’t come up with any inconvenient science that might get in the way of the Bitumen Express currently roaring down the tracks.

It’s a very bad sign when the best of us become anonymous.

Image Credit: DFO report, Canada's Policy for Conservation of Wild Pacific Salmon.

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