Science, Information and Democracy

Science, Information and Democracy 

An empirical case analysis as background for my talk: “A Philosopher Reflects on Governance in Canada: Is Democracy in Decline?” to be presented to the noon hour series for Senior Fellows at Massey College on September 23rd.


Howard Adelman



Following interviews with the science journalist, Véronique Morin, the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year, this blog surveys the various efforts of the Harper government to limit the output of scientific data, particularly that related to environmental issues, and access to data. The government redacts much of the data given out after delay, delay and delay. The article concludes that this is part of an even larger operation to undermine the professionalism of the civil service and its critical role in ensuring a strong and responsive democracy. 


Véronique Morin is the Webster McConnell Fellow in Journalism at Massey College this year who works the science beat, with an emphasis on research, for a science magazine program, Le Code Chastenay, on Télé-Québec. She had the idea and undertook the research for the documentary, Time Bombs, which exposed the horrific use by government officials of 40 ordinary soldiers in order to study the effects of the use of atomic bombs on the military in combat. The bombs were sometimes as much as four times more powerful than the bomb used on Hiroshima and at times the soldiers were only half a mile from the explosion. The soldiers were not told that they were being used as guinea pigs. They obeyed because they were members of the Queen’s Own Rifles and saw themselves as serving Queen and Country in following orders. Of course, the soldiers later developed cancer in extraordinary proportions and this fact was kept a secret from them initially and from the Canadian public. Even worse, some of their children were born with deformities or handicaps. Time Bombs follows the Atomic Veterans in their quest for recognition from the Government. The documentary won a Gold Ribbon award from the Canadian Association of Broadcasters, and a Best Documentary award from the New York International Independent Film and Video festival. Excerpts can be seen on

“Why did we go there?” the veterans ask. Why won’t the government acknowledge what was done to these veterans in Operation Plumbbob when Jim Huntley, the only veteran still in good health, confronts the politicians as the quest for justice is juxtaposed with never-before-screened film records of American nuclear tests involving soldiers. I asked Véronique why the officials in 1957 sent them since they knew by then the effects of atomic radiation. She thought they were driven by a combination of scientific curiousity and a desire to be part of the Big Boys Club with America and Great Britain.

Linked with my last topic on indigenous peoples, Véronique organized a panel of science journalists on “Science coverage of indigenous people” who are confronted with very high rates of diabetes, obesity and exceptional rates of suicide, particularly among the youth. How should science reporters deal with these issues when indigenous people may not share the epistemological assumptions of modern scientific inquiry? How does one reconcile journalistic integrity with scientific objectivity and cultural sensitivity? Véronique, a former President of the Canadian Science Writers Association, was also a key catalyst behind moves to investigate the Canadian government muzzling of government scientists. 

The Harper Government and Access to Scientific Information

I was out of touch with the media when scientists demonstrated last summer on Parliament Hill decrying the “Death of Evidence” and asserting “no science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy”. I had also missed the early April news that The University of Victoria Environmental Law Center and non-partisan Democracy Watch had requested that Canada’s Information Commissioner conduct a probe into “systematic efforts by the government of Canada to obstruct the right of the media — and through them, the Canadian public — to timely access to government scientists.” Calvin Sandborn, the legal director from the University of Victoria’s Law Centre noted that, “the topics that require the highest level of ministerial control are topics related to the tar sands, climate change, polar bears, caribou and the oil and gas industry.”( (Science News “Canada to probe ‘muzzling’ of scientists,” 2 April 2013)

A press release said that Canada’s Information Minister, Suzanne Legualt, announced an investigation into six government departments over the so-called muzzling of government scientists. In actuality, Madame Legault simply confirmed that the decision to investigate fell within the mandate of Canada’s information commissioner for the federal Access to Information Act requires the Office of the Information Commissioner to investigate “any matter related to obtaining or requesting access to records” from federal institutions. Gary Goodyear, Minister of State for Science and Technology, boasted that, “Environment Canada participated in more than 1,300 media interviews, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada issued nearly 1,000 scientific publications, and Natural Resources Canada published nearly 500 studies.” This, of course, said nothing about whether scientists were or were not muzzled. 

The Canadian Commission for UNESCO has also taken up the issue. It is ironic that in the same year those 40 soldiers were sent on a mission to be exposed to deadly radiation in 1957, both the Canada Council and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO within the Canada Council were founded following a petition of 16 national cultural organizations in Toronto in December 1945 and the inclusion of that proposal in the mandate of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts co-chaired by Vincent Massey. This explains the irony of a Commission within the Canada Council investigating the issue of access to government scientists.

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly protects freedom of expression. According to rulings of Canadian courts, governments can restrict a person’s freedom of opinion and expression only for important overriding purposes. There are three tests of such seriousness: 1) is the override rationally connected to the purpose it is intended to achieve; 2) is the impairment as little as possible? 3) do the beneficial effects of any restriction outweigh the deleterious effects? The pattern of muzzling government scientists passes none of these tests and seriously undermines the three underlying values of freedom of expression: participation in social and democratic decision-making, attainment of truth, and individual self-fulfillment.

The initial probe is restricted to the following departments:

·                 Environment Canada

·                 Department of Fisheries and Oceans

·                 Natural Resources Canada

·                 National Research Council of Canada

·                 Canadian Food Inspection Agency

·                 Department of National Defence

·                 The Treasury Board Secretariat


The evidence of muzzling contained in the over one hundred pages of appendices to the 26-page joint petition and complaint filed on February 20th seems overwhelming. For a summary see Carol Linnit’s May 2013 article, “Harper attack on science: No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy,” in Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education. Not only have government scientists been muzzled, but important research programs and mechanisms for collecting information, such as the Long Form Census, have been cancelled. Sometimes, as Linnit wrote, the suppression is ludicrous as when Mark Tushingham was prohibited from attending the launch of his own novel exploring a future world destroyed by global warming. Federal scientists in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are required to obtain high level permission to meet with the media to discuss peer-reviewed research.


The greatest repression is connected with environmental research:

  • The Harper government new rules on media contact led to an 80% reduction in department engagement on issues of climate change
  • In 2008, the position of National Science Adviser was eliminated
  • Scott Dallimore of Natural Resources Canada required the permission of Natural Resources Minister, Christian Paradis, to comment on his research on a northern Canadian flood 13,000 years ago
  • Postmedia journalist Margaret Munro was denied access to information or government personnel regarding Canada’s radiation detectors (She subsequently won an honourable mention from the World Press Freedom Award for her story on muzzling scientists; the Canadian Science Writers Association as a collective won the 14th annual Press Freedom Award for their work on exposing government restrictions on federal scientists and deliberate delaying tactics.)
  • Scientists in Environmental Canada were not permitted to discuss their paper published in Geophysical Research on the projected estimate of a 2 degree celcius rise in global temperatures
  • David Tarasick of Environmental Canada was not permitted to discuss his research on the ozone layer over the Arctic
  • Environmental Canada research scientists were not permitted to discuss the petroleum-based pollutants in snowfall near the Alberta tar sands except if their comments were restricted to scripted statements provided to them
  • Media liaison personnel had to accompany all government scientists at the International Polar Year Conference in Montreal
  • The Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013 announced a policy that all scientific research undertaken by the department was confidential unless released by high level officials in the department
  • In August 2011, 700 Environmental Canada positions were eliminated in the name of fiscal restraint
  • By February 2012, the number of light detection and ranging stations to monitor ozone loss and fossil fuel pollution had been reduced from ten to five
  • Funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmosphere Studies was not renewed in 2012 forcing the closure in Nunavut of PEARL, the Polar Environment Aerospace Research Laboratory
  • Funding for the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy was cut in 2013 and it was restricted from making its information publicly available
  • Peter Ross, Canada’s only marine animal toxicologist, along with 1,074 other Department of Fisheries and Ocean employees, lost his job
  • The Harper government cut $3 million from the Experimental Lakes Area in an effort to shut down this natural laboratory for studying the effects of industrial and chemical pollutants on waterways and aquatic life

Year after year, the Harper government has received a failing grade from Canadian Journalists for Free Expression for policies which deliberately delay and prevent access to information. Canada was ranked 40th out of 89 countries in last year’s Global Right to Information Rating. Further, as Véronique made clear, the attack on evidence and on access to information goes far beyond environmental or even natural science issues. In my own areas of expertise, library resources and policy units have been closed down in departments like immigration and foreign affairs. The effort is not merely to protect and defend policies promoting resource development in the face of environmental criticism, but to make policy independent of any science-based foundation whether applied to incarceration of more people or with respect to immigration and refugee policy. Stephen Harper may have been the smartest kid in his high school class, but he has led a government dead set again evidence-based policies and in favour of policies which have a populist appeal.

Populism is not democracy. Democracy is not equivalent to politicians claiming to express the will of the people. Democracy depends on the protection of minorities (in contrast to the policies of the minority government in Quebec). Democracy depends on free expression and access to and dissemination of accurate information so that civil society can be as well-informed as possible. Importantly, good governance depends on incorporating those values in developing an independent mandarin professional class of civil servants who can advise government on various options based on the best knowledge available to them. A mandarin class is not the antithesis of democracy but a requisite condition of its highest democratic aspirations.  The public interest is not and cannot be equated with private interests even as the worthy goal is pursued of preventing ostensible efforts at protecting the public interest from being used to squelch and restrict entrepreneurial efforts needlessly. When civil servants to keep their positions or rise in the hierarchy simply become toadies to the party in power and lose their independence, then the professionalism of a mandarin class is undermined and democracy is weakened.

Civil servants with impressive reservoirs of technical expertise are prerequisites for both formulating and implementing policies decided by government. That does not mean that the delegation going downwards can be badly executed or that the civil servants may not overreach and undermine the government’s ability to make decisions or that governments often will ignore sound advice and the knowledge based on experience and studies at their peril even when a quality mandarin class is available to them. However, the basic premise in a quality democracy is that mandarins propose but do not decide and mandarins execute but do not simply obey blindly. This premise has stood the test of time. Regimes which ignore this lesson out of conspiracy theories that the mandarin class is simply an ideological tool of an opposition party or the simplistic mantra that elected officials and not unelected civil servants must make policy in a democracy simply misrepresent how representative democracies work. They do not work by converting mandarins into lackeys trotted out for elected representatives to hide behind when convenient or kept behind the curtain when it is politically expedient.

Mandarins have the following responsibilities with respect to a democratically elected government:

·         To prepare professional quality options to facilitate rational decisions

·         To facilitate access to government from a wide variety of competing interest groups

·         To especially accommodate disadvantaged groups in the process thereby strengthening goals of social justice and equality

·         To insulate as much as possible the process of decision-making by those with exploitive, manipulative and/or repressive agendas by fostering broad participation and dialogue.

Accurate information and acute analyses that are widely disseminated are crucial to the process of fostering evidence-based discourse, the very foundation of the democratic cause and the foundations for an informed public.