TOP 10


incidents of politicization and political interference in science in Canada

10. Shutdown of the office of the National Science Advisor

Arthur Carty was appointed National Science Advisor to provide independent, non-partisan advice and technology. We are told he retired on March 31, 2008.1

In fact, after transferring the position from the Prime Minister’s Office to Industry Canada, the office was eliminated when the government formed the 18 member Science, Technology and Innovation council. Only when Mr. Carty was told that the government no longer needed his advice did he offer his resignation.2

The STIC council is appreciably less independent than the office of the National Science Advisor, as government administrators hold several of its seats.

Many scientists have lamented the loss of the Office of the National Science Advisor, as there is no longer an independent scientific voice to advise the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on science policy issues. In the United States, the dismantling of disinterested scientific advice to legislators was a prelude to the suppression and distortion of independent scientific results; prejudical appointments to scientific funding and regulatory bodies; and the the discrediting of scientists whose results detracted from the administration’s political agenda3.

The dismantling of independent scientific advice in Canada has also had a detrimental impact on public health and food safety. Following the SARS epidemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada was formed and given its own Cabinet position, to allow a direct line of communication with the Prime Minister. But in 2006, the cabinet position was eliminated and the Chief Medical Officer of Health was reinstituted as a civil servant reporting to the Minister of Health. This eliminated any independent public health voice to the Prime Minister4, and foreshadowed the “strategic review” of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that ultimately resulted in the listeriosis crisis of 2008.

[1] Scientists lament closing of key advisory office. CBC News. January 25, 2008.

[2] Editorial: Science in retreat. Nature. 451(21) 866.

[3] Darin Barney. Neo-conservatives and the Politicization of Science and Technology in Canada.

[4] CMAJ Attaran et al. 179 (8): 739.

  1. 9.Political appointments to Assisted Human Reproduction Canada

On December 10, 2006, the Minister of Health announced the appointment of 10 board members to Assisted Human Reproduction Canada. This board was created to regulate fertility clinics, make research decisions around stem cells, and advise the Prime Minister on policy about assisted human reproduction.

An expert scientific committee was convened by Health Canada specifically to recommend names for the board, and shortlisted 25. The Minister rejected their recommendations almost entirely. Only two of the ten appointees were from the the committee’s shortlist.

An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that 4 of the board’s 8 non-executive members had publicly declared socially conservative perspectives on issues directly within the board’s mandate, and that the Chair had political ties to the Conservative Party of Canada1. The editorial also noted the absence of experts in fertility treatment and stem cell research from the Minister’s appointees.

We believe that scientific advisors should be chosen in a transparent way, based on their knowledge and qualifications as evaluated by peers, not on their political beliefs or affiliations. Circumventing Health Canada’s appointment process is yet another example of the disassembly of mechanisms to provide independent scientific advice to the government.

[1] A plea for transparency in Canada’s “new government”. CMAJ. 176(5) 601.

  1. 8. Muzzling of Environment Canada Scientists

Canada is an emerging energy superpower, and its government doesn’t want any resistance to the rapid expansion of the energy sector. International efforts to stem the effects of climate change threaten the energy sector’s growth - and so does the supporting science.

When he was leader of the opposition in 2002, Stephen Harper wrote: “Kyoto is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations... it’s based on tentative and contradictory scientific evidence about climate trends”.1 That was 12 years after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its first report concluding with certainty that the earth is warming and carbon dioxide is a major contributor.2 Manufacturing doubt, or trying to turn a scientific consensus into a controversy is a very effective technique for politicizing science - the tobacco industry delayed regulation for years by calling for “more studies” to determine if tobacco harms health.

Armed with executive control over Environment Canada, we now see the government censoring climate change scientists. Environment Canada scientists once openly discussed their work with the press, but now all inquiries are re-routed to Ottawa where public relations experts respond3. Scientists are not even allowed to confirm the most basic scientific facts without approval from the “highest levels”. If given permission for a media interview, climatologists are told to stick to “approved lines”. When the National Post asked how these “approved lines” are being written, the director of Environment Canada refused to say who’s writing these lines or who’s approving them.3 

  1. “They've been muzzled. The concept of free speech is non-existent at Environment Canada... They are manufacturing the message of science.”3

  2. -Prof. Andrew Weaver, University of Victoria

  3. Lead author of three Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports

[1] Harper's letter dismisses Kyoto as 'socialist scheme'. CBC News. January 30, 2007.

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, First Report (1990)

[3] Environment Canada Scientists told to toe the line. National Post. January 31, 2008.

  1. 7.Cancellation of book launch

The government is censoring Environment Canada’s climatologists not only in their work lives, but in their private lives, too.

Mark Tushingham, an Environment Canada climatologist, wrote a novel exploring a post-climate-crisis Canada. He wrote it on his own time, and with his own resources.

The day of his book launch, he received a directive from the federal Ministry of the Environment, ordering him not to attend. He subsequently cancelled several TV and radio interviews.1

The Minister of the Environment said that she had the power to stop the book launch because the novel wasn’t approved through the proper government channels.

[1] Minister stops book talk by Environment Canada scientist. CBC News. April 13, 2006.

  1. 6.Denial of insite research results; elimination of research funding

Vancouver Coastal Health started a politically controversial program aimed at reducing some of the harms faced by injection drug users, such as the contraction of HIV and hepatitis by sharing needles. The intervention has resulted in thousands of referrals to addiction counselling and hundreds of lives saved from overdoses. Studies also show a sharp drop in HIV and hepatitis infection rates. These studies were published in some of the world’s most prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals.1-4

Insite is a supervised injection clinic, where addicts can bring their own drugs to inject under medical supervision. Sterile syringes are provided. Statistics show that Insite has not increased drug use or crime in Vancouver.5 Safe injection clinics are supported by the World Health Organization.6

Insite is, however, politically controversial. People who haven’t read the studies sometimes assume that Insite increases drug use or crime, even though the statistics show that is not the case.

On September 1, 2006, Health Minister Tony Clement appealed to those preconceptions and issued a press release calling the research “inconclusive”.7 He said that more studies would be needed to demonstrate Insite was successful, or the federal government would use the Criminal Code of Canada to shutdown the clinic. The Minister then cancelled all research funding for Insite8, and publicly questioned the ethics of doctors who support the clinic9. The president of the Canadian Medical Association responded by saying that 79% of member physicians support Insite10.

  1. “I found the use of medical ethics to justify a political decision, which will affect social policy to be troubling at best and misleading at worst.”10

  2. -Dr. Bonnie Cham, Chair of the Canadian Medical Association Ethics Committee

The Ministry of Health is an office respected by the public and the opinion of the Minister carries weight. He abused his office by “manufacturing doubt” in science; by trying to turn a scientific consensus into a controversy for political purposes, and subsequently shutting down the scientific research whose results don’t support his politics.

The federal government then tried to use the Criminal Code to shutdown the clinic; however the evidence of Insite’s benefits was so strong that the B.C. Supreme Court ruled move unconstitutional.11

[1] Wood E, Tyndall MW, Montaner JS, Kerr T. Summary of findings from the evaluation of a pilot medically supervised safer injecting facility. CMAJ. 2006;175(11):1399–1404.

[2] Wood E, Kerr T, Small W, Li K, Marsh DC, Montaner JSG, et al. Changes in public order after the opening of a medically supervised safer injecting facility for illicit injection drug users. CMAJ. 2004;171(7):731–734.

[3] Kerr T, Tyndall M, Li K, Montaner J, Wood E. Safer injection facility use and syringe sharing in injection drug users. Lancet. 2005;366(9482):316–318.

[4] Wood E, Tyndall MW, Zhang R, Stoltz J, Lai C, Montaner JSG, et al. Attendance at supervised injecting facilities and use of detoxification services. N Engl J Med. 2006;354(23):2512–2514.

[5] Kerr T, Stoltz J, Tyndall M, Li K, Zhang R, Montaner J, et al. Impact of a medically supervised safer injection facility on community drug use patterns: a before and after study. BMJ. 2006;332(7535):220–222.

[6] Canadian health minister resists WHO on safe injection sites. CBC News. August 6, 2008.

[7] Health Canada News Release: No new injection sites for addicts until questions answered says minister clement. September 1, 2006.

[8] Insite researchers turn down federal 'gag order' money. Vancouver Courier. October 5, 2007.

[9] Clement questions MDs who favour safe injection sites. CBC News. August 18, 2008.

[10] Clement slammed for safe-injection remarks. Canadian Press. August 18, 2008.

[11] Drug laws unconstitutional: B.C. Supreme Court. CBC News. May 27, 2008.

See also:

Insite by the Numbers. Vancouver coastal health.

Hwang, S. 2007 Aug 20. Science and Ideology. Open Medicine [Online] 1:2.

  1. 5.Elimination of funding for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Research is a grant agency that funds research on the impact of climate change on Canadians specifically. Projects include, for example, forecasting of future draught and water supply problems.

The foundation expected to receive $25 million in the 2009 budget, but instead it received nothing.1 Consequently, many climatologists are unable to continue their research.

Canada has independent granting agencies such as NSERC, CIHR and SSHRC - whose purpose is to insulate the funding of science from political interference. That insulation obviously doesn’t work when a grant agency’s entire budget is eliminated.

[1] Scientists quit as climate funding dries up. Canwest News Service. February 16, 2009.

  1. 4. Suppression of asbestos research

All forms of asbestos are carcinogenic. We don’t use asbestos for construction in Canada anymore, but we export asbestos to countries with weaker health and safety standards such as India, Indonesia and Pakistan. The federal government has spent more than $20 million over the past two decades promoting these exports1. The World Health Organization estimates that 100,000 people die each year from asbestos exposure.

In October 2006, during the international talks to update the Rotterdam Convention, Canada was the only western democracy opposed to adding chrysotile asbestos to the hazardous substances list1.

In November 2007, Health Canada agreed to a comprehensive review of the health effects of chrysotile asbestos. Seven experts were hired from around the world. Health Canada required them to sign an agreement not to discuss the results of the review until was published.

In March 2008, the experts completed their review and submitted it to Health Canada for publication. They were told it will be published in about two weeks.

Two months later, the study was still not published. The authors wrote to the Minister of Health, Tony Clement, imploring him to release the study. One author wrote:

  1. "It is simply unacceptable for this report to continue to be withheld from the public, while individuals who have seen the report and our comments make erroneous allegations about what it contains to suit their political objectives."2

  1. - Lesle Stayner, co-author

  2. Head of the School of Public Health, University of Illinois

In October 2008, seven months after the study was completed, the study was still awaiting approval for publication. The international community met

in Rome to update the Rotterdam Convention, and they voted against adding Chrysotile asbestos to the list of banned substances1.

Sources told the Canadian Medical Association Journal3 that the study is being blocked by the Prime Minister’s Office.

[1] Canada an 'avid cheerleader' for asbestos: CMAJ editorial. CBC News. October 21, 2008.

[2] International Experts: Canadian Government Burying Asbestos Study. June 16, 2008.

[3] Asbestos mortality: a Canadian export. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 179(9) 871.

  1. 3. Prime Minister makes ad hominem attack on scientist during nationally televised leader’s debate; puts words into mouth of CMA

In August 2008, Canada experienced the worst epidemic of listerosis in the world. Twenty Canadians died.

An editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) pointed to a series of systematic failures in the management of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. It noted that in November 2007, the government shifted responsibility for the inspection of ready-to-eat meats from the CFIA to the meat producers themselves1. Maple Leaf Foods, who operates the plant where the listeria breakout occurred, was an early adopter of the “inspect-yourself” program. Even ten months later, the CFIA had not yet developed a listeria sampling method for the meat industry’s inspectors.1 The article also noted that Canada’s listeria standards, which allow 100 bacteria per gram, are lower than those in the United states, which don’t allow any of the deadly bacteria in retail meat products. Canada has lobbied the United States to loosen their listeria standards, opposing daily visits by inspectors and finished-product testing for listeria. Finally, the editorial criticized the government’s promised inquiry into the listeria crisis, since: the inquiry will not be public, the investigator will not be able to subpoena witnesses or documents, and the inquiry has no obligation to release its report to the public. Also, the investigator is not an arms-length from the government; Sheila Weatherill currently sits on the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee to Revamp the Public Service, whose mandate includes “Branding the public service as a trusted and innovative institution of national importance”2.

The editorial was discussed in the 2008 French-Language Leader’s debates, which was nationally televised on October 1.

October 1st, 2008 Leader’s Debate. CBC News.

Dion: If you want to know how amiss the Harper government has been, just read the editorial in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. They say they weakened the system that Canadians put in place, and really, the regulation is unacceptable. The inspections are no longer being done on the ground, there’s just more and more paperwork...

Harper: It was a Liberal writer and the association denounced his position... the Medical Association rejected that position... Mr. Dion is talking about a Liberal who wrote that article.

In fact, the editorial had seven authors, not just one. Dr. Amir Attaran, whom the Prime Minister said was a “Liberal”, has never been a member of the Liberal Party3. Even if he was, that wouldn’t justify a nationally televised ad hominem attack on the scientist and his work.

Even more troubling than the televised attack on Dr. Attaran’s motives, is Mr. Harper’s claim that the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) “denounced” and “rejected” the editorial in question. In fact, the CMA merely issued a statement - as is included with every CMAJ editorial - that the editorial is the view of the CMA Journal and not the CMA itself. In claiming that the CMA “denouced” and “rejected” the article, the Prime Minister put words into the mouth of a respected professional medical organization.

[1] CMAJ Attaran et al. 179 (8): 739.

[2] Listeriosis investigator accused of conflict of interest. January 21, 2009. The Canadian Press.

[3] No donation can get past Tory spin machine. October 3, 2008. The Ottawa Citizen.

  1. 2.Dismissal of Nuclear Safety Commission President for assessment of isotope reactor

On November 18th, 2007, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) ordered the NRU isotope reactor to shutdown. The Nuclear Safety Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial body responsible for nuclear safety in Canada, including reactor licensing.

The Nuclear Safety Commission had discovered that the emergency power supply wasn’t actually connected to the NRU reactor cooling pumps. This means that in event of an earthquake, the reactor might not have enough power to cool itself and could meltdown. Unlike every power reactor in the western world, the NRU reactor has no containment structure.

The shutdown of the NRU reactor caused a worldwide isotope crisis. The medical isotopes it creates are necessary for diagnosis and treatment of several medical conditions.

In December 2007, when the crisis was at its peak, Canada’s government passed a law to override the Nuclear Safety Commission and order the reactor to be started up, safety concerns set aside. This was the appropriate thing to do - most would agree that the consequences of an accident would be smaller than the consequences of the ongoing medical isotope crisis. Canada’s elected body weighted the risks and benefits, informed of the risks and consequences by the CNSC. The CNSC does not have the legal authority to make such a value judgement; only to determine whether or not the standard of safety is met.

As it turns out, the Minister of Natural Resources had been pressuring the CNSC to certify the reactor as safe, when in fact it was not. He even threatened to fire the CNSC’s President1.

The CNSC was created as a quasi-judicial, independent body so that the public can be informed on matters of nuclear safety by a non-partisan scientific voice. Pressure to certify the reactor as safe, when in fact it was not, contravenes the spirit and the letter of the Nuclear Safety and Control Act.

In a move that astonished nuclear regulators worldwide, the Minister of Natural Resources dismissed Linda Keen from her role as President of the Nuclear Safety Commission on January 16, 20081. This was only hours before she was scheduled to appear before a Parliamentary Committee investigating the isotope crisis.

The dismissal of the head of an independent, quasi-judicial safety organization for correctly informing the public about the risks of the NRU reactor poses grave concerns for all of Canada’s “independent” regulatory agencies.

[1] Nuclear safety watchdog head fired for 'lack of leadership': minister. CBC News. January 16, 2008.

  1. 1.Banning the lead organizer of the World Climate Conference from attending

Canada has a reputation for obstructionist tactics in international climate negotiations1-3. Such negotiations are critical in developing an agreement to limit the production of greenhouse gases, which threaten the habitat and freshwater supply for hundreds of millions around the globe. We won numerous “Fossil of the Day” awards and were ranked 57th out of 58 countries for lack of effort in fighting climate change - second only to Saudi Arabia3.

In a move that stunned climatologists around the world, Environment Canada climatologist Don MacIver was told there wasn’t enough money to send him to the conference. Dr. MacIver was chair of the organizing committee for the World Climate Conference in Poznan. He has over 300 publications; is a former professor of Climatology at York University and a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change4.

  1. "He was originally scheduled to attend, but in the interests of cost-saving, he is one of the people who the civil service decided would not attend."5

  2. - Jim Prentice, Minister of the Environment

Dr. MacIver was later offered full funding to attend the conference from the World Meteorological Organization. He booked his flight and packed his bags. But on the way to the airport, he received a directive ordering him not to attend the conference.6

Dr. MacIver subsequently resigned as chair of the organizing committee of the conference. Environment Canada spokesperson Sujata Raisinghani said the lab would not speculate on his reasons for resigning, and that they are "a personal matter"5. But an email from Dr. MacIver to senior management at Environment Canada made his reasons for resigning very clear:

  1. “It is clear that a significant tipping point has been crossed... I have been placed in an untenable position and I say this with great reluctance because I remain hopeful that the essential milestones for World Climate Conference-3 can be achieved. However, given the delays in EC’s support for this globally significant event and the ongoing embarrassment to Canada, it is clear that another chair from another supporting country is needed to provide critical leadership."

  2. - Dr. Don MacIver in email to Environment Canada Management. Obtained by Canwest News Service6.

In light of the widespread muzzling of Environment Canada’s scientists, we are fascinated that the national lab needed to spend $59,0007 on a consultant to determine why its morale was so poor.

[1] Canadians obstructing climate agreement, sources charge. Edmonton Journal. December 14, 2007.

[2] US, Japan, Canada accused of obstruction at climate. Earth Times. December 5, 2007.

[3] 'Embarrassing' to be a Canadian at climate talks: Green party leader. CBC News. December 13, 2008.

[4] Science & Technology - MacIver, Don. Environment Canada. January 23, 2009.

[5] Scientist dropped from climate delegation to save money: Prentice. CBC News. December 13, 2008.

[6] Tories ‘embarassing’. Ottawa Citizen. December 13, 2008.

[7] Canada slashes spending on wildlife protection: CBC. Reuters. September 19, 2007.