Some researchers face backlash over publishing results.
Some researchers face a backlash over their findings.

“I’m not going to be popular.” So says Prof. Jonathan Newman about his planned talk on a panel on censorship in science taking place at U of G this week.

The director of the School of Environmental Sciences (SES) will discuss the impact of censorship in the sciences along with Profs. Coral Murrant, Human Health and Nutritional Sciences; and Stuart McCook, Department of History. The panel discussion will take place Feb. 26 during Freedom to Read Week.

Summing up what might sound like a contrarian view of science and censorship, Newman says his working title is something like “Muzzling Government Scientists Is Not as Bad as It Looks at First Sight – With Emphasis on Government.”

Complaints that the Harper government denies scientists permission to speak to media on issues such as climate change have become a perennial refrain. Last fall, the New York Times criticized Canada’s government for allegedly preventing its scientists from discussing topics that might slow oil sands production.

Newman says government scientists are hired to provide information to policy-makers and elected officials. “They’re not there to provide information to the public necessarily.”

Even few university researchers are versed in public policy, he says, although tenure and academic freedom at least enable academics to speak out on policy matters. “We are not trained in policy-making,” he says. “We have a more one-dimensional view of the world.”

Murrant is interested in industry funding and influence on university research. She refers to a controversy sparked in 1996 when Toronto researcher Nancy Olivieri broke a confidentiality agreement to reveal concerns about toxicity of a drug under study.

Nearly two decades later, says Murrant, scientists continue to sign confidentiality agreements in return for access to industry resources or funding. She has signed such agreements in order to use a company’s genetically modified mice, for instance, in studies of pregnancy and blood vessels.

She says researchers need to read the fine print on pertinent documents. Two years ago, she was surprised to learn that a co-author had signed an agreement 11 years earlier with a predecessor company subsequently bought by another firm. The researchers agreed to make minor changes to a paper at the company’s request.

That case ended amicably, but Murrant says faculty need to be aware of potential problems. “You work to become a tenured professor to gain academic freedom. You can quickly sign that away without realizing it.”

As a historian and philosopher of science, McCook is interested in the social context — what he calls the “situated-ness” — of science. Try as they might to remain objective, scientists work against a backdrop of a specific time and place, and are affected by anything from funding to societal values.

That can complicate things when scientists disagree over results, says McCook, associate dean of the College of Arts. In 2001, a published study about corn genetics reported traces of transgenic DNA in non-transgenic corn plants. Other scientists questioned the study methodology and results.

The journal ended up repudiating the article, but McCook says he found the original paper still intact on its website. The case also unleashed a debate over various scientists’ connections with chemical companies and groups opposed to genetically modified organisms.

He says the case raises questions about a journal’s responsibility as well as how scientists handle politically contentious research. “This case study illustrates the need to develop processes to deal with ‘situated-ness’ and still produce good science.”

Event organizer Dave Hudson, information literacy librarian with the McLaughlin Library, says, “There has been increasing debate in Canada about the rights and responsibilities of scientists to freely pursue inquiry and publicly disseminate their findings.”

The panel discussion will take place Feb. 26 at 4:15 p.m. in the academic town square on the first floor of the library.

The event is free and open to the public. For more information, contact