“Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?”


This title is quoted from a publication by Jeffry Hutchings, Carl Walters and Richard Haedrich, back in May of 1987. Their paper dealt with government control of science information in regard to the cod fish crisis in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Kemano Completion issue in B.C.  Now, almost 25 years later, their title question is still appropriate when we consider the control of public communication by Dr. Kristina Miller, a DFO scientist at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo. The control is in regard to her public discussion of her (and co-author’s) highly technical paper on genomic signature and mortality of migrating Sockeye salmon (Science, pages 214-217, Vol. 331, 14 January, 2011). The muzzling of this scientist originates primarily in the office of the Prime Minister of Canada, far more than in the DFO bureaucracy.

I have read the paper and it is unclear to me why there should be any reluctance on the part of government, at any level, to having such research discussed with the public. It is even less clear to me why Dr. Miller is constrained from discussing such work until after she appears before the Cohen Inquiry in late August. Her work is already open to the scientific community through publication in the prestigious journal, Science. To the extent that Dr. Miller and co-author’s work on wild salmon in the Fraser River may provide help in sustaining them, it should be open to the public now. Science should not be used for playing political games.

When one considers the behavior and record of governments, over the years and at the  very “top end”, there is cause to wonder what the real commitment is, deep down, in regard to sustaining wild salmon. The bitter history of issues such as Alcan/Kemano, salmon farming, and Fraser River gravel mining underlie such concern. In each case there appears to be an unspoken policy of business and industry first, and wild salmon and their environments second. Salmon-friendly measures such as the “wild salmon” policy and “no-net-loss” principle are positive, however, they seem to have less weight than they should when big business is involved.

Such doubt and concern has “big roots” as far back as the mid 1980s in the Kemano completion issue. A major element of debate involved the allocation of adequate flows in the Nechako River for the Chinook salmon population that reproduced there. Full review of this unfortunate part of history is not possible in a limited space. A listing of the chronology of events is given in my paper in the publication (GeoJournal, October 1996, Volume 40, nos. 1 & 2, page147 – 164).

A deeper and harsher indication of the misuse of scientists and their work is given in the Brief to the B.C. Utilities Commission Review Panel by Dr. J.H. Mundie (The Kemano Completion Project: An Example of Science in Government, 50 pages, February 1994).              

  • Dr. Mundie tells of the Schouwenburg report, the joint year-long work of about ten scientists, being buried. This report contained the best advice the scientists could offer regarding required flows for salmon in the Nechako River.
  • He reviews how DFO scientists and managers were told that the minister accepted Alcan’s prescribed flows as adequate.
  • He reviews how a group of DFO people and Alcan consultants, over a four day weekend period, came up with a program to make Alcan’s dictated flow regime work.
  • He testifies to his being pushed, unsuccessfully, to change his expert witness document regarding flows required for salmon.
  • He quotes the minister’s statement in regard to scientists who were concerned about the Alcan/Nechako River process, they should either agree with him, or “take their game and play elsewhere.”    

Except for the need for brevity, the experiences of other scientists could be added to this section. This history is not presented to re-acquaint people with the whole controversial history of the Alcan/Nechako episode. It is touched on to indicate that little has changed during about the last 25 years in the way governments manage science and scientists.

Organizations like DFO contain many very talented and dedicated people. The public does not gain the full benefit that they might offer in the present politicized and bureaucratized system. Both the public and the public servants deserve better.

As for the Fraser River salmon, they face a difficult and uncertain future even if only the freshwater environment is considered. It is a future marked by change and complexity. The complexity involves interaction of climate, flow regimes, thermal and forest cover changes. Added to these are, expanding human populations, water abstraction, pollution, and competing demands for catch.

There is urgent need for a structure that can focus on these major challenges now and into the years ahead. Such complex and expanding challenges cannot be dealt with without scientific knowledge. Whatever the Cohen Inquiry might do, it is not a substitute for science now, and into the future.  

Beyond the provision of knowledge, we need a structure that allows the public to know what the scientific findings and advice are. We need a structure that permits thoughtful public response and feed-back to such information.

If political people must over-ride science for reasons of “greater societal good”, which they have every right of do, let them do so openly. Then let them also explain it openly, rather than trying to shape and manipulate science, through the bureaucracy, to serve political or business ends.

G.F. Hartman, Ph.D.,

August 2011


About Dr. Gordon F. Hartman

Dr. Gordon F. Hartman has consulted on fisheries issues in a number of foreign countries to help them contribute to the well being of that resource. Leading fishery scientists all over the world will attest to his knowledge and ability. Dr Hartman, long a premier scientist and manager with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was one of the "dissident scientists", as Alcan referred to them – a sobriquet he wears with pride - who helped mightily in the fight to cancel the Kemano Completion Program proposal for the Nechako system.

5 thoughts on ““Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?”

  1. Once again, the most effective way to combat the evils of big business, corrupt or weak government officials, and other despoilers of our environment or public funds, is to widely publicize their evil deeds. In B.C. that has become difficult because the mainstream media refuses to do indepth reporting, and in some cases, any report at all on these deeds. I believe they share fully half the blame.

  2. Thank you for your perspective, DC – and for your first-rate columns on the subject in the Times-Colonist. I share your hope that closed-containment solutions will supplant the antiquated open net cage industry sooner than later.

  3. In 1200 characters, the reason for political science in the Kristi Miller, and other cases to do with Pacific salmon is, I think, this:

    There is agreement between the governments of Norway and Canada that fish farms will grow in high numbers in Canada. In BC, Nova Scotia, NB; sadly, Newfoundland has gushingly signed on, too.

    The fish farm giant Cermaq, operating here as Mainstream Canada, is owned 43.5% by the Norwegian government, and the tax payers of Norway. This allows for government to government talks.

    DFO wants fish farms to grow in high numbers, too. For Pacific salmon they have not seen other use than commercial. One of their new programs, CIMTAN, as I recall, aims to increase the number of fish farm scientists in Canada by about 500.

    The problem is that Norwegian derivative fish farms are technological dinosaurs and the western world is moving to on-land, closed systems. And retailers & consumers are already turning away from their products.

    The other problem is that Pacific salmon are iconic to the BC public. I am sorry to think so, but there may be civil disobedience if market forces do not get the out-dated in-ocean fish farms onto land. I hope the market works.

  4. I am left wondering why any scientists remain silent. If speaking out publically cost them their employment, it is employment not worth being considered, in my view.
    Principles get expensive; they can cost jobs, reputations, lives, and fortunes. Each time a scientist is muzzled, and accepts that muzzling quietly, without protest, they compromise their own validity as to their findings.

    One cannot be found guilty of speaking the truth. People only have the power over you which you relinquish to them.

    Alexandra Morton has been continually vilified by DFO, the feds, and many others; the result being each time she gains more credibility by standing in the wind.

  5. Scientists are not permitted by Harper, to publish their results. Everything has to go through the government first. What the scientists find, is their written results are severely tampered with.

    Harper has grandiose aspirations, to be an energy giant. He wants so badly, to achieve this power and glory. Harper is desperate to peddle the Alberta dirty tar sands, to every country that can be conned into buying.

    Harper doesn’t care about fish. He doesn’t care about, lakes, rivers, streams, oceans, lands, nor any of our eco systems. Harper cares about Harper’s glory, and that’s all he cares about. He will pollute the entire planet, to achieve, his evil mission.

    If we think the equally evil BC Liberals, give a damn about BC’s eco systems? Christy will lie, deceive, and cheat for money. Her only interest is, to force the HST, onto her “family’s first”.

    This country is foul with corruption. Scientists must fight Harper, for their right to publish. To hell with that evil dictator, of a Harper. This is our country. Harper has no right, to stay in our country. He is treasonous, and should be treated as such.

Comments are closed.