Tuesday November 10, 2015

Muzzled 'rock snot' scientist is now free to speak with us

Max Bothwell has been a research scientist with Environment Canada for decades. He's looking forward to the new relationship between the media and government scientists under the new federal government.

Max Bothwell has been a research scientist with Environment Canada for decades. He's looking forward to the new relationship between the media and government scientists under the new federal government. (Max Bothwell)

Listen 8:16

Environment Canada researcher Max Bothwell is relieved following the news that scientists can now speak with the media freely. Last year, he was affected by the muzzling of Canadian scientists when a request from a journalist turned into a bureaucratic mess.

The Harper government had come under fire for muzzling a number of federal scientists, making it very difficult for them to speak with journalists.

"It has been a really nice feeling actually being able to talk to the media and share what's going on," Max Bothwell tells As it Happens host Carol Off. "What has gone on in the last couple days is exactly the way it used to be when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was in power."

205290703 Muzzling scientists

A man dressed as Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2nd R) poses after placing gags on fellow protesters dressed as a backbench Member of Parliament (L), a librarian (2nd L) and a scientist during a demonstration against the muzzling of MPs and federal government employees in Ottawa April 18, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Known by his colleagues as the "rock snot man," Bothwell has published multiple papers about the freshwater algae.

Last year, As it Happens spoke with Canadian Press reporter Dene Moore about her attempt to schedule an interview with Bothwell regarding his new rock snot study. Moore, however, never got approval from government officials. Her request resulted in more than a hundred pages in emails shared between 16 public servants in Ottawa. Moore was able to get an interview with the study's American counterpart within an hour or so.

"The news reporter walked away from the process because it was unwieldy and took too much time," says Bothwell. "If she can't get access to me within 24 to 48 hours, anything she could write would not be news. It would be history."

Bothwell stresses that Moore's interview request was never denied.

"Apparently, their philosophy was no news is good news." - Max Bothwell, research scientist with Environment Canada

"The department of environment at every level has actually approved my interaction with media in every instance."

According to Bothwell, interview requests only became a problem when the PMO got involved. He guesses that there were two or three instances when media requests, that had already been approved by Environment Canada, were blocked by the PMO. 

He describes the Harper government's "need for control" as "humiliating."

One of four hypotheses in Bothwell's research cited climate change as a potential contributor to the algae growth. 

"The implication that climate change was involved in the denial in my case is difficult to fathom because climate change research has been one of the priority issues for our department for a long time." 

Kristi Miller, a scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has detailed a similar top-down decision making process that involved the PMO.

"Apparently, their philosophy was no news is good news," says Bothwell. 

He says Environment Canada has a proud history and looks forward to sharing its research in the future.