Is scientific inquiry compatible with government information control?
September 9, 1997: It was early in the 16th century that the pursuit of cod (so abundant it could be scooped from the ocean with a basket) brought Europeans for the first time in significant numbers to the shores of North America. During the following three centuries, the cod fishery expanded continually without evidence of a limit. In the 1960s and 70’s, however, larger and better equipped fishing vessels achieved smaller, not larger catches, indicating that the sustainable yield had been exceeded. Conservation efforts in the early 80’s temporarily reversed the trend in stock abundance. But in 1991 a miscalculation by Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in setting the allowable catch resulted in a collapse in spawning biomass to a mere 2,700 tonnes following a harvest that year of 190,000 tonnes. Since then the fishery has remained closed with little evidence of recovery in stocks.
How this disaster occurred is open to question. But that the DFO seriously overestimated the sustainable catch indicates a basic flaw in either its estimates of fish abundance, or its interpretation of the data. According to a recent journal article (Hutchings et al. 1997, Ref. 1), it is likely that there was a misinterpretation of the data. In particular, there appears to have been a failure by DFO officials to recognize the inherent uncertainty in the stock assessment numbers, although the uncertainty seems to have been understood by the DFO scientists who assembled the data. This failure in communication, Hutchings et al. suggest, was the result of the DFO's policy of information management. Thus, whatever their apprehensions, scientists could speak publicly only about “factual” information that “describes or explains programs or policies that have been announced or implemented by the government” (2). This means that DFO scientists were, and are, prohibited from stating a fact, let alone an opinion, that exposes the DFO to possible criticism, even if they have good reason to believe that the actions or policies of the DFO are detrimental to the public good.
The initial reaction of DFO officials to the Hutchings et al. paper was to denounce it in a letter to the publisher as “tabloid journalism” unfit to appear in a scholarly journal (3), notwithstanding that the paper had been approved for publication by an international review panel (4). Subsequently, and more constructively, the DFO announced an “Open Forum” to discuss fisheries science in relation to fisheries management. This forum took place last week in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is covered in an exclusive report to naturalSCIENCE. Also published here is a commentary on science and the state with particular reference to fisheries management. As the report indicates, the DFO does not acknowledge that its information management policies negate the value of its scientific research program, and it is, therefore, opposed to recommendations for an independent fisheries research establishment. There will be many, however, who believe that matters should not end here, and we invite contributions that continue the debate on the relationship between science and fisheries management in Canada and the broader question of the proper relationship between science and the state.
Commentary: Science, the State and Freedom of Speech