Michael Rennie

Michael Rennie, biologist at the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) research station, said that when he was a federal scientist, he never spoke to a journalist on the record in response to any media requests he received. (International Institute for Sustainable Development)

The federal government is hurting itself by not letting its scientists speak, says a researcher at the Experimental Lakes Area research station in Northern Ontario.

Up until recently, the research station was run by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Michael Rennie was a government employee. That meant he couldn't speak very freely to the media.

"For all the interview requests I got, I never actually spoke to a journalist on the record to provide information," he told CBC's As It Happens this week. The fact that he had received media training didn't seem to matter, he said.

Rennie is now able to give interviews because the research station was turned over to a non-profit organization, the International Institute of Sustainable Development, earlier this year. The group helped save the research facility from being shut down altogether, as the federal government had planned.

Rennie called the feeling of being allowed to speak freely "refreshing."

He suggested that the federal government's restrictions on scientists' ability to speak aren't just bad for the public, who are deprived of their expertise — but are also bad for the government itself.

When the federal scientists who do the research can't talk about the results, he said, "they're left to whatever commentators of the day to interpret results for the public — and I think in many ways, that can be more damaging than letting these authors comment for themselves."

When asked by As It Happens host Carol Off about the perception that certain topics such as climate change are especially sensitive, Rennie said, "It's possible."

He added, "The fact that it leaves this open to speculation doesn't serve the department very well. It certainly doesn't serve the science that they're producing very well, either."