Scientists Biased, Talk Too Much: Government Memo

Natural Resources Canada in a confidential cabinet grievance suggests senior scientists are biased and too talkative with reporters. The memo followed publication of federal research on the environmental impact of Alberta’s oil sands development.

“This is classic,” said Dr. John Smol, a Queen’s University professor who co-authored the landmark oil sands research; “You can call me all sorts of names but, look, I’m an honest guy. The Canadian people have a right to know this. I am very proud of that paper.”

A panel of scientists at Queen’s and Environment Canada wrote the study that revealed hazardous emissions from oilsands development had resulted in detectable levels of contamination in nearby lakes. The 2013 research paper Legacy Of a Half Century Of Athabasca Oil Sands Development Recorded By Lake Ecosystems based its findings on lake sediment deposits in north-central Alberta.

“The study received significant media coverage,” complained a Memorandum To The Minister. “Environment Canada has told us that this was, in part, because Queen’s University provided an embargoed advance copy to media outlets along with a technical briefing by Professor Smol.”

The memo continued, “In interviews, Professor Smol stated: ‘We have, in some ways, a smoking gun here…We can show that the amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, only one of the many contaminants that are out there, are increasing in lockstep with the tar sands developments starting in the 1960s…We’re not saying these lakes are poisonous, but it’s going to get worse. It’s not too late, but the trend is not looking good.’ The advance briefing by Queen’s University and the statements would indicate a lack of neutrality in the study participants and are not in line with the study findings.”

Natural Resources staff vowed to get advance copies of potentially critical scientific research in the future: “We will aim to brief you on these reports prior to their release.” The memo’s author, then-Deputy Minister Serge Dupont, was not available for an interview. His memo was released through Access to Information; Dupont left the department June 20 for appointment as Canada’s $288,000-a year representative to the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C.

“To say this lacks ‘neutrality’ raises the question of how these people can be so out of touch with how science works,” said Professor Smol. “This is my job. This research was funded by taxpayers. It’s my job to report to the people of Canada and the scientific community on what the data show. To cast aspersions on that by this internal document – it’s sad, really.”

Smol is Queen’s Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change; co-director of the Paleoecological Environmental Assessment & Research Laboratory; editor of the journal Environmental Reviews; a former Rutherford Lecturer at the Royal Society of London; and a 2004 winner of the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council’s Herzberg Gold Medal as the nation’s top scientist.

“The supposed ‘bias’ in having media take an advance look at this – that’s standard practice,” Smol said. “Media always have advanced copies of scientific studies under embargo. Surely people writing this must understand how media normally work.”

The research was widely covered by world press including public radio in the U.K., Sweden and Germany; the New York Times and Christian Science Monitor; all major Canadian dailies and Alberta Oil magazine.

Legacy concluded lake contamination has grown as oil sands production increased since 1980, and was projected to keep growing with industry forecasts of a 150 percent gain in production by 2025. “The conclusions are obvious to anyone who can draw a line on a graph,” Smol said. “When you can show increasing pollution trends, and petroleum producers talk of doubling production in fifteen years, how would you conclude otherwise? It’s a logical conclusion, not a lack of ‘neutrality’.”

By Tom Korski

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