© 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.