We’re only a few days into the Trump era and it’s becoming painfully clear that the new US president is mobilising for a war on science. This situation is eerily reminiscent of attempts to suppress science in Canada during Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister, from 2006 to 2015. Here’s what Canadians say American scientists and concerned citizens should expect in the next four years — and what they can do to fight back.
Illustration: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo
As feared, President Trump is turning his anti-science views into public policy. In addition to entertaining anti-vaxxer views, the US president has denied that climate change is real, calling it a pseudoscientific plot conjured by the Chinese “to make US manufacturing noncompetitive”. His devotion to fossil fuels remains unwavering, placing him at odds with the latest climate projections. It’s no wonder, then, that Trump has set his sights on dismantling institutional forces that could undermine his anti-science, anti-environment worldview.
The US Environmental Protection Agency is where Trump has struck first, setting up the EPA-bashing Scott Pruitt as its chief, freezing all EPA grants (which apparently won’t last beyond the end of the week) and forbidding staffers from talking to reporters or the public. EPA scientists who want to publish or present new findings may find themselves having their research reviewed by political appointees first, although the degree of political interference to come remains unclear. A measure to stifle the US Department of Agriculture was enacted, and then (partially) rescinded mere hours later. Disruptions to science communications have also been reported at the CDC and Health and Human Services.
Republicans in the United States have done this sort of thing before. Under President George W. Bush, all NOAA, USDA and NASA climate info went went through the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. The CEQ was hypersensitive to anything climate-related, and would routinely reject documents and handouts, including a 2003 brochure about “carbon sequestration” in the soil (that is, how farmers can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions). “It is not just a case of micro-management, but really of censorship of government information,” noted a government official afterwards. “In nearly fifteen years of government service, I can’t remember ever needing clearance from the White House for such a thing.”
These are troubling portents of things to come for federal institutions that dare to stand at odds with the Republicans’ twisted new vision of America, in which its citizens are shielded from objective truth.
For Canadians, this all sounds disturbingly familiar. For nearly a decade, the Stephen Harper-led Conservative government did its darndest to prevent federal scientists from sharing their work with the Canadian public. Like the incoming US administration, the now-ousted Harper was fixated on fossil fuels, making it one of his top priorities to protect what he saw as Canada’s greatest asset: The Alberta tar sands. To ensure the steady flow of oil, the Conservatives clamped down on environmental science, from research on climate change to studies on the state of Canada’s rivers, lakes and forests. At the same time, the Conservatives re-routed money away from federal institutions and projects they didn’t like, directing it instead at what were perceived as less-threatening research areas, including better ways to extract more oil from the tar sands.
Starting shortly after he took office in 2006, Harper began to introduce measures that made it difficult for federal scientists to share their work with the public. In order to speak to scientists, journalists had to go through government communications officers, which presented an often impenetrable bureaucratic barrier. The government also made it difficult for federal scientists to travel to conferences where they could share their findings.
If a government scientist wanted to speak to the national or international media, he or she would have to receive pre-approval from a minister’s office. As CBC pointed out back in 2015, this process involved “drafting potential questions and answers, which [were] then scrutinised by a team before the green light is given”.
In one instance, government scientist Max Bothwell found himself stuck in a Kafkaesque 110-page email exchange, in an effort to communicate his findings on climate change-induced algal growths to The Canadian Press. Unable to wait, the CP went ahead and published its report without the lead scientist’s input. After Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was elected and the muzzling of government scientists lifted, Bothwell told The Globe and Mail that the experience was both frustrating and embarrassing: “The way [the muzzling] is received by people like me is that these people don’t value me and they don’t trust me,” he said. “That message came across crystal clear: Scientists are not respected and they are not trusted.”
Natural Resources Canada research scientist Scott R. Dallimore says he felt muzzled under the Harper administration, too. In 2010, Dallimore co-authored a scientific paper describing the effects of flooding from drainage of a glacial lake 12,000 years ago in what is now the northwest Canadian Arctic. “It was an odd pick to impede my availability to Canadian press,” he told Gizmodo, “considering how uncontroversial and rather mundane our paper was, not to mention the fact that it was accepted for publication in Nature, a very respected science journal.”
The fact that Dallimore’s work was singled out showed how far the Harper administration’s reach was when it came to screening and vetting anything that even hinted at the environment or global climate change.
“Really, what was revealed to me was the complexity of the approval process and the number of people who were watching over me — more than a dozen unknown people inside the media sphere of my department were considering, debating, guiding, massaging, and exerting influence on the whole process,” said Dallimore. “In the end I received permission to speak [to the press] and they didn’t actually impose any control on what I said. But they influenced my accessibility such that Canadian press stories went ahead without hearing from the Canadian researcher involved, and without learning how the story fit within the mission of my organisation to inform Canadians about the geology of the Canadian landmass. It was clear that I was being monitored and that I should be very wary of what I said.”
Kristi Miller, a molecular geneticist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was told in no uncertain terms that she was to refrain from talking about her work — declines of Fraser River sockeye salmon — to reporters. “To be that controlled, it almost made you nervous,” she told The Globe and Mail. “They were almost trying to make you afraid of the public, and afraid of the media.”
Among the many programs cut or slashed, Harper de-funded the Experimental Lakes Area project, a unique research station encompassing nearly 60 formerly pristine freshwater lakes in northwestern Ontario. (Image: IISD)
For Michael D. Rennie, a biologist who worked for Fisheries and Oceans Canada studying ecological systems in the lakes of northwestern Ontario, things began to change once Harper amassed a majority parliament in 2012.
“Soon after, massive program cuts came sweeping through with massive layoffs and whole programs gone — including my own,” he told Gizmodo. Confusingly, however, Rennie’s group was only listed as “affected”, placing the staff in a state of limbo. “We were kept around [as employees] to ensure that the closure of our program — the Experimental Lakes Area — could be done such that the federal government would meet its obligations to the province under the original agreement that saw the program created,” he said. “In other words, dig your grave before we shoot you and bury you in it.”
The defunding of ELA was seen as a damaging blow to conservation efforts in the country. Rennie and his team were studying 58 formerly-pristine freshwater lakes in the Kenora District of northwestern Ontario, and investigating the aquatic effects of pollution and other stresses on lakes and their catchments.
As for the muzzling, Rennie says that restrictions became much more stringent after 2012. “If I was contacted by someone from the media, I would reply and cc someone in communications to schedule an interview, which was [the new] policy,” he said. “But the strategy seemed to be that communications would simply never provide a response — our submission deadlines would pass and the story would be dropped.”
The emphasis on process — such as filling out five forms to hire a summer student, or providing a list of conferences a year and a half in advance only to be denied the trip with just a few days notice — also worked to limit public engagement beyond the simple measures of limiting contact with the media, says Rennie.
“The strategy seemed to be: mire everyone in bureaucracy so they have no time to do any real science,” he told Gizmodo. “The result of this — plus laying off hundreds of staff, and leaving many strung along in a limbo state of ‘affected’ — resulted in a workplace that no one really wanted to be in with low morale and far more cynicism than is probably healthy.”
Other anti-science tricks invoked by the Harper government included axing the National Science Advisor position, scrapping the mandatory long-form census (which took a deep dive into the demographic make up of the Canadian population), slashing funding for Canada’s Ozone Network (a program providing near real-time data on the ozone layer above Canada) and ending the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy (a Canadian advisory agency focused on sustainability). In 2013, members of the House of Parliament reached a new low when they actually voted against the value of science in policy decisions — and then proudly gave each other high-fives for doing so.
Stories of gagged scientists in Canada during this period are abundant. Mercifully, however, this sad era in Canadian history is over. On 19 October 2015, Justin Trudeau led the Liberals to a decisive victory in the federal election. Among his campaign promises, he pledged to undo the restrictive measures imposed by Harper, and make science a priority during his tenure as Prime Minister. On 5 November 2015, Canada’s new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, told government scientists that they’re finally free to speak to the media about their work. “Our [Liberal] government values science and will treat scientists with respect,” he said in a statement. “That is why government scientists and experts will be able to speak freely about their work to the media and the public,” adding, “We are working to make government science fully available to the public and will ensure that scientific analyses are considered in decision making.”
It may be years before we realise the full impact this muzzling had on science in Canada, but the effects are undoubtedly far-reaching. For nearly a decade, Canadian citizens had little to no knowledge of what sorts of research their tax dollars were funding. Data gaps now likely exist in both the environmental and sociological records. This isn’t just a problem for science — it’s also a problem for society. For a democracy to work, and to ensure good policy making, the electorate needs to be informed. Without proper science, democracy suffers.
With this episode over, and with the United States now poised to deal with similar measures, Canadian scientists have some practical advice for American scientists and concerned citizens.
“For years, Canadian scientists looked to the United States with envy, marveling at the degree of openness afforded to them,” Dallimore told Gizmodo, “We strived in Canada to secure this model for our scientists and we succeeded. It would concern me greatly if this situation is now being flipped onto its head.”
The most important thing now, he says, is for journalists in the US to keep the story alive. “It was the role of the Canadian media and its persistence in covering this issue year after year — often to the point of utter repetitiveness — that helped the public understand what was going on,” said Dallimore. He believes the media played an important role in making science a major issue during the 2015 federal election — an election in which the Conservatives lost handedly to Trudeau’s Liberals.
Image: Richard Webster/deathofevidence.ca
“It’s also important to remember that government scientists are paid for by taxpayers,” Dallimore said. “It makes no sense to have a filter.” He adds that scientists deserve to be trusted and taken seriously, while at the same time cautioning that scientists shouldn’t go too far beyond their immediate area of expertise and assume they know what’s best in terms of public policy. Our credibility [as scientists] is based on the substance of our research findings and our ability to communicate, he says.
Dallimore acknowledges, however, that there are instances in which it’s acceptable for a government scientist to speak not on behalf of his or her institution, but as a concerned citizen. And indeed, this sentiment is growing in the United States, with some scientists are feeling the need to become all-around “science advocates”, even if it means stepping a bit outside one’s own area of expertise.
Writing at his formerly anonymous blog UnmuzzledScience, Rennie is now offering advice to his American colleagues based on what he learned during Harper’s science clampdown. Among his many tips, he says it’s important for federal scientists to get a personal email address, build an anonymous social media presence, engage with university collaborators, educate the public on why government science matters and how it’s different from academic research and get involved with a union.
“Engaging with outside collaborators is a key strategy for ensuring that work can still be communicated (even if a government researcher can’t comment on their paper, then their academic collaborator can), helps guard against publication blockage by administration (the collaborator can run with it), and maintaining data security (collaborators keep a copy),” Rennie told Gizmodo.
Encouragingly, some of these measures are already being adopted by scientists in the USA. Prior to Trump’s inauguration, American and Canadian scientists began working together to back up sensitive US environmental data.
Rennie says it’s also important to recognise and respect that not everyone is going to want to expose themselves to the same degree.
Above: Canadian protesters hold a mock rally in 2012 to mourn the death of scientific evidence.
But there are less overt ways to resist an anti-science administration, as well. In Canada, concerned scientists and citizens organised regular protests across the country, including a mock funeral on Parliament Hill in 2012 to mourn the death of scientific evidence. Other tactics included the writing and disseminating of open letters (800 scientists from 32 countries signed this letter asking Harper to end the “burdensome restrictions”), and the launching of complaints to watchdog groups (in Canada, complaints to Democracy Watch and a university law clinic led to an investigation of Canada’s Information Commissioner). US scientists have already started to adopt these strategies too, writing their own open letters to Trump.
Scientists, Rennie says, need to support the work of other scientists. He praises the proposed scientists’ march on Washington, which went viral on social media this week.
“It’s important to let government scientists know that we have their backs,” Rennie said. “We as the larger scientific community need to defend not just the role of evidence in decision making, but simple objectivism against a government that seems bent on convincing the American public that up is down and that red is blue, and that the media or anyone else who says otherwise has a secret agenda and can’t be trusted.”
“[The Trump administration is] trying to undermine people’s confidence in their ability to make objective observations and are so bold as to state things that can clearly be discredited as simply ‘alternative facts’ just to see who’s willing to abandon reason and jump blindly on board.”
Rennie says that scientists and concerned citizens have to remind people why science — why government science — is important in our ability to make clear and effective decisions, especially for a global power like the United States whose policies reach far beyond domestic borders. A perfect example of this is the Paris climate accord. Should the Trump administration drop the United States’ commitment to carbon emissions reductions, it could have a ripple effect on scientifically-sound global climate action.
As for the current situation in Canada, Dallimore says he feels more freedom under Prime Minister Trudeau, and he no longer feels an invisible barrier separating himself from the press (hence his openness in discussing the issue with Gizmodo). “It’s been a huge paradigm shift,” he said. “The department heads trust me.”
Rennie agrees, saying his former colleagues at the Fisheries Department report the situation has “improved dramatically” since the Liberals took over.
Indeed, the dark days for science are over in Canada. At least for now. Let’s hope this return to common sense repeats in the US in four years time. Until then, it’s time to mount a fight on behalf of science.