First author, no comment

Implanting an acoustic tag into a migrating Fraser sockeye (Jennifer M. Burt/Science)

Q: When is the lead author of a paper published in Science not allowed to comment on the subject?

A: When she works for Canada’s federal government. In this case, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

It is not a new phenomenon that Canada’s federal scientists are prevented from talking about their taxpayer-funded work.

Margaret Munro, the science reporter for Postmedia News, wrote a news story last year that pushed this practice into the public eye, prompting coverage by other media outlets (including the CBC), and an opinion piece in the journal Nature calling for change.

From Munro’s story:

The documents say the “new” rules went into force in March and reveal how they apply to not only to contentious issues including the oilsands, but benign subjects such as floods that occurred 13,000 years ago.

But, even if it’s not new, I still think its worth noting when it happens.

In this case, the scientist was the first author of study on Fraser River sockeye that provides a new piece to the puzzle of their declining numbers. (CBC story.) Researchers took tissue samples from migrating sockeye salmon, and tagged the fish to see which ones survived to spawn. They found a pattern.

The ones with a certain set of active genes were more likely to die before the spawning grounds. The researchers said it looked like the genes were responding to a viral infection — as in the fish that were dying had caught a virus out at sea.

The journal’s embargoed release sent to media around the world told reporters to contact DFO communications to reach the lead and corresponding author, Kristina Miller. But after days of trying, my colleague on the story was told yesterday that Miller “still [had] not received permission from Ottawa to speak to the press.”

Two of her co-authors from UBC, Scott Hinch and Tony Farrell, conducted interviews instead.

This study does touch on a few issues the federal government would flag as controversial. For example, if the fish did catch a virus, where did it come from? Biologist and activist Alexandra Morton suggests it might be from fish farms. Also, the study invites questions about climate change, pointing out that “seven of the last 10 summers have been the warmest on record for the Fraser River” and explaining that warmer water can make sick fish sicker.

What do you think? Would you like to hear from federal scientists about their work?

2 Comments

  1. This muzzling policy is so asinine, it’s hardly worth pointing out one more problem with it. But I can’t help wondering why authors 2 and 3 are conducting interviews. Oh, because they work at UBC, not for DFO.

    So who’s getting hurt by this policy? Kristina Miller, Author 1. Sure, she’s lead author but that doesn’t mean as much anymore when Google Scholar searches for all names. Publicity like this is important and she’s being denied the opportunity to share her passion and excitement with the public.

    Worse yet, if the policy causes even one budding scientist to decide to NOT work for the Federal Government. It’s not just that the government doesn’t listen to its experts, perhaps it won’t have those experts in the first place. That’s a loss for all of us.

  2. lisa

    Thanks for the comment Peter.
    I should note, because I wasn’t very clear in the post on this, that there were actually 15 authors on this paper, from DFO, UBC, SFU and Carleton. Hinch and Farrell happen to be listed as numbers 11 and 15, respectively.

    You’re absolutely right that they were interviewed because they work for UBC (and of course because they were involved in the study and had interesting things to say about it). UBC put out a press release with quotes from Hinch and Farrell.

    Actually, seven of the authors (including Miller, with joint affiliation) are listed at UBC — within that group, it looks like Hinch and Farrell are the faculty members who could speak about salmon migration, rather than just the genetic work.

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