Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) muzzling scientists?

So the previous post here: marketing is everything; everything is marketing… (even at DFO) quoted a Mark Hume Globe and Mail article and his coverage of the Cohen Commission into declines of Fraser sockeye. At the Commission recently was Dr. Laura Richards, Pacific Regional Director of Science for DFO.

“Do you think it’s a role of DFO scientists to develop speeches for parliamentarians?” asked Bruce Wallace, senior commission counsel.

The role of science is really to provide factual information, and that’s what we do,” replied Dr. Richards.

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I’m a fan of the power of contradictions; they are often a source of power… of tension between opposing views… however, maybe not so much in testimony in a quasi-legal process.

Mark Hume writing in yesterday’s Globe:

Researcher suggests ‘salmon leukemia’ is to blame for decline of Fraser sockeye

Of all the theories heard so far by the Cohen Commission, the most intriguing involves new research by a molecular scientist who is pointing to the possibility of an epidemic of salmon leukemia.

Kristi Miller hasn’t been called to testify on her research yet, but her work is already causing a buzz at the inquiry, in part because it seems an effort has been made to keep it under wraps.

Dr. Miller has not been available for media interviews, even though she recently published a paper in the prestigious journal Science. Usually, Fisheries and Oceans Canada promotes interviews when one of their researchers gains an international profile for groundbreaking work. But when Dr. Miller’s paper came out earlier this year, all requests for interviews were denied.

When Laura Richards, Pacific regional director of science for DFO, testified last week, he asked her about a series of e-mails that suggested Dr. Miller was being muzzled.

In a Nov. 2009 e-mail to Mark Saunders, manager of salmon and freshwater ecosystems division, Dr. Miller said she was being kept away from a science forum.

“Laura [Richards] does not want me to attend any of the sockeye salmon workshops that are not run by DFO for fear that we will not be able to control the way the disease issue could be construed in the press. I worry that this approach of saying nothing will backfire,” she wrote. “Laura also clearly does not want to indicate … that the disease research is of strategic importance.”

Dr. Richards testified that Dr. Miller had somehow misinterpreted things, and that there was no intent to silence her.

Dr. Miller won’t testify for months yet and she remains banned from giving any media interviews. But her research, which could explain why up to three million salmon a year are dying in the Fraser, is already reverberating at the Cohen Commission.

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Research is suggesting that this ‘salmon leukemia’ virus is killing up to 70% of Fraser sockeye in some years. And this isn’t just any old research, it has been published in the prestigious journal Science.

The response from DFO to one of their scientists being published?

“…she remains banned from giving any media interviews.”

But don’t forget:

“The role of science is really to provide factual information, and that’s what we do,” says Dr. Richards – the Pacific Regional Director of Science for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

… except, it appears, when it really should be widely communicated and distributed.

_ _ _ _ _ _

If you’d like to read other accounts of Dr. Richards enlightening testimony visit the Cohen Inquiry Notes blog by Elena Edwards who writes frequently about testimony at the Commission:


Inquiry into the Art of Avoidance

In a stunning display of ‘uh’s and um’s’ Dr. Richards responses to the line of questioning by Gregory McDade for the Aquaculture Coalition was nothing short of disappointing with many heads shaking in disbelief.

An example of the mind boggling testimony ;

McDade; “[At] the conference that saw Dr. Miller present her hypothesis that the disease agent is intercellular, possibly a virus? Do you remember that?”

Richards; “Uh, there was certainly a presentation that she made at that meeting and I, uh, I can’t recall specifically exactly what she said, but I have to assume that the abstract is an accurate representation.”

McDade points out, “Well, you in fact attended that meeting as co chair of the committee on scientific co operation…”

“That’s correct.”

“…and ultimately prepared a summary of these proceedings.”

Richards; “Uh, yes. That’s correct. Well, a very short summary that was sort of based on this.”

McDade; “Dr. Hinch sent you a copy of the very document we’re looking at.”

Richards; “Well I didn’t review the…, I can’t say that I honestly read every single line in this document but I did skim it, yes.”

_ _ _ _ _

McDade asks the impossible question; “Do you not know what vertical transmission even means?”

Dr. Richards; “Uh, I’m not uh…I have a general sense of that but I’m not going to give you a specific definition. I think that really needs to be done with the experts.”

McDade; “Well, Dr Richards, I’m not looking for a highly technical definition here, I’m looking for your understanding about this.”

Silence settles over the room as everyone waits with baited breath for the intelligent response they all know is coming. And come it does as Dr. Richards replies;

Well we are talking, uh…I, I… look, I’m just, uh, I’m just, um … sorry, I’m sorry, I just, my brain has gone fuzzy on that particular point right now so I would rather not give you an answer that’s wrong.”

McDade, seeking clarity, asks; “Doesn’t it simply mean that you can transmit from the parents stock through the eggs to the next generation?”

Dr. Richards; “Uh, it, I think that’s what it is, but I would like to… as I said , this is not my area and I just want to be very careful  of to not give incorrect  evidence.”

Now imagine an entire day of such non answers to a very serious matter indeed, and perhaps we can begin to understand that if this is the type of management offered by DFO, we should be most concerned for the future of the Fraser River Sockeye Salmon!

5 thoughts on “Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) muzzling scientists?

  1. Dave Barnes

    Embarrassing testimony from DFO’s Pacific Region’s head scientist. I would think her career is effectually over and retirement is close while Bill Ricker is rolling in his grave.

  2. Brian

    Not very great testimony. I would have thought that Ms. Richards would have been better prepared given the attention this part of the inquiry is receiving. Unfortunately, the testimony will make the employees underneath within the rank and file look incompetent; however, I am sure Dave Barnes will agree with me that many that work within Science are not incompetent and take quite a bit of pride in their work. This needs to be emphasized and put into perspective.

    In retrospect, one could argue that this information should have made it out to the media sooner. There are some really great scientists within DFO doing some good work. They are excellent speakers who are very passionate about the work they do. They know their topic and are likely the best ones to present this. Unfortunately, people in certain professions just cannot say whatever they want to say, but this is not exclusive to just public servants either. Unfortunately, communications people may not be the best ones to relay certain information.

    It should be emphasized that this work has been going on for the last 12 years (not mentioned by Hume or critics). Genetics is only one part of this work (physiology, histology, etc.) . It relates to the early entry of Late Run Sockeye into the Fraser River. Numerous journal articles have been published by Scott Hinch’s group, so this work as a whole is certainly not new news. So, the notion that this was kept secret or delayed (not pointing fingers at this blog, but in other circles) is absolutely, 100% false.

    However, there is also a very compelling arguement for being concern with releasing preliminary information which is not confirmed. It is not that people are trying to keep secrets. Like it or not there are people that are very willing to run with any information – misquoting and misrepresenting the actual findings. For instance, how would you feel if your name was used in a report saying that you were in support of the the project but in reality you had no knowledge of it and no one asked your permission. This actually happens. Once it is out in the public domain there is no taking it back. If something is unconfirmed as this is it can make it that much worse. People start throwing around all these diseases and saying that the missing link has been found, but in reality it is just another stepping stone – another piece in the puzzle. Unfortunately, nowadays, people find some information on the internet off blogs or chat forums and base their opinions off of it without really thinking about the whole issue. However, the void is being filled by these other sources, so those in the scientific community need to realize that. Not really fighting fire with fire, but being more proactive to head off the rumour mill.

    I do not believe that people conspired to purposely muzzle this information as these memos, emails, etc. are completely open to Freedom of Information requests. Sometimes not releasing certain information can be due to poor decisions at the time. It does not have to be malicious. Like you said Dave, sometimes when someone thinks they are protecting the soft vulnerable part – they are actually making things worse (similar to what you posted before). I imagine that the timing of the inquiry being called before this report was released played a role.

    I would be cautious about interpreting anyones testimony word for word using Cohen Inquiry Notes blog because I do not believe it is the official transcript of the commission. The official transcripts are legal documents which have to be complied, checked over and gone through translation before they are posted on the commission website:

    The commission does attach the pdf versions of these transcripts eventually. Sorry, but I am skeptical of blogs professing to have information on the inquiry. For every blog that protrays themself as being impartial their are 10 othes that have an axe to grind. The commission website is impartial and paid by taxpayers already so people should be utilizing that site (in my honest opinion).

  3. joe

    Salmon Guy,
    Thanks much for the link to Elena Edwards blog, very interesting testimony and good to get her perspective of the courtroom proceedings .
    Maybe Ms. Richards will be the “fall guy” for DFO, but I suppose she is just doing her job as advised by her superiors within DFO. Interesting that the Salmon Commission would not be advised immediately of such a serious situation.

  4. GB

    Obviously Laura Richards has been gagged. When she did not want to give a specific defination of the question “vertical transmission” it was plain to see at least to me that she had a gag order and was(is) being set up as the fall guy as usual by DFO. Of course she knows what vertical tansmission means. Anyone with a thought process knows what is going on here.

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