Sockeye Salmon
© David Menke

A scientific study of fish genes has turned a spotlight on a lesser-known facet of the Canadian government: rigid control over its scientists' contact with the media. In an article published online yesterday, Postmedia News reporter Margaret Munro reported that fish scientist Kristi Miller had been forbidden by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to talk with the media about her genomic analysis of sockeye salmon. The story, based on 792 pages of e-mail and memos that Munro requested under the country's Access to Information Act, has left Canadian science writers fuming about what they call the latest of many examples of unwarranted muzzling.

Miller's paper, which was published in Science in January, is part of an effort to discover why sockeye in the Fraser River in western Canada began dying in record numbers in 2007. It's a contentious and highly political topic in British Columbia, enmeshed in larger debates over the rights of commercial fisheries versus indigenous peoples and whether salmon farms might be in some way responsible for the die-off that threatens to wipe out the $1 billion industry. The reason for the decline is unknown, but Miller's tour-de-force genomic study identified a set of genes expressed at unusual levels in the diseased salmon: genes associated with fighting infection or leukemia. Perhaps, the authors concluded, the mysterious death was due to "a virus infecting fish before river entry and that persists to the spawning areas."

The article impressed other scientists, and media outlets deluged Miller and DFO media officer Diane Lake with requests for interviews, Munro's article says. Like scientists in most government agencies in Canada, Miller must get clearance from her agency's media office before talking with reporters. This time, DFO said no. The reason: Miller's position as an expert for the Cohen Commission, a task force set up by the Prime Minister in 2009 to investigate the cause of the salmon death. According to Munro's article, Miller will be testifying before the commission in August.

Melanie Carkner, spokeswoman for DFO, says that the department made the decision out of concerns that interviews with Miller might "sway the decision" of the commission, but she adds that Miller or DFO could respond to requests in writing. (Carkner initially declined to answer ScienceInsider's questions about Miller's research, citing the Cohen Commission, then said DFO would consider it; no one had responded by the time of posting.)

Scientists aren't buying it. Fisheries scientist Jeffrey Hutchings said he finds it "inconceivable that the Cohen Commission would have viewed the communication of brand new scientific information as somehow interfering with its proceedings." He adds, "There is no question in my mind it's muzzling."

Munro says the e-mail record shows that the decision to silence Miller was made at the last minute. In messages to and from officials in Ottawa, "you see them getting more and more frustrated," she says. Right before the Science paper was scheduled to go live online, DFO pulled its name from the joint press release it had written with the University of British Columbia (UBC). Miller was left apologizing to reporters with whom she'd scheduled interviews, leaving co-authors Scott Hinch and Anthony Farrell of UBC to explain to reporters what salmon leukemia and the possibility of a virus actually meant. Some media have become enamored of the idea of a virus, even suggesting a government conspiracy to save itself some embarrassment should its trade practices prove to be spreading it.

As for Miller herself, an e-mail read aloud during the first Cohen Commission hearings in April suggests she would prefer to share her results. According to the transcript of her testimony, the e-mail says "[DFO Science Director Laura Richards] doesn't want me to attend any of the sockeye salmon workshops that are not run by DFO for fear that we will not be able to control the way the disease issue could be construed in the press." The e-mail went on: "I worry that this approach of saying nothing will backfire." (Richards called that account "a mischaracterization.")

This is far from the first time that restrictions on scientists' access to the media have hit the news. In 2010, National Resources Canada prevented geologist Scott Dallimore from speaking with reporters about his research on a 13,000-year-old flood. Climate scientists have also complained of muzzling by the government, and leaked documents from Environment Canada showed that a drastic decline in coverage of climate change by the Canadian press between 2007 and 2010, due to Environment Canada's own new media policies. "We've been dealing with this for years," says Stephen Strauss, vice-president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA).

Canadian journalists have loudly decried the policy. As former CSWA president Kathryn O'Hara editorialized in Nature last fall, "This message manipulation shows a disregard for the values and virtues of both journalism and science, and subverts timely disclosure and access to scientific data."

Strauss says the government's refusal to let Miller speak is incomprehensible. "They should be proud of fact their scientist is involved in an effort that may explain dramatic fall in salmon," he says. "It shows they're concerned and want to find an answer."

Strauss offers ScienceInsider a few ideas he's suggested to Canadian journalists: Start every story with a mention of how the government won't allow the scientist to speak with you. And then make a $10 tax donation to the United States if an American government scientist helps you with the story. "No representation without taxation," he says.

In the meantime, journalists are making the best of what they have. "It's kind of a fumbling situation we have going on up here," Munro says. "But you know, when they fumble, it makes for some pretty good stories."