Canadian scientists lend support to muzzled US counterparts
Scientific libraries were closed, programmes suffered drastic cutbacks while federal scientists were banned from talking to media on topics that ranged from snowflakes to salmon and even a 13,000-year-old flood.
“It was a dramatic departure from past practices,” said Robert MacDonald, who has worked as a federal government scientist for nearly 30 years.
In 2015, the Justin Trudeau-led Liberals swept to a majority government, buoyed in part by promises to reverse the draconian restrictions the previous government had imposed on its scientists.
MacDonald pointed to a 2013 survey of government scientists in which 24% said they had been directly asked to exclude or alter information for non-scientific reasons. “That’s something you would expect to hear in the 1950s from eastern Europe, not something you expect to hear from a democracy like Canada in 2013,” he said. “And I think, by all indication, that’s what our sisters and brothers are going to be faced with down in the United States.”
Recent days have seen the Trump administration reportedly consider scrubbing all mentions of climate change from the Environmental Protection Agency website, while the Associated Press reported that EPA scientists could be subject to a “temporary hold”, pending review by political appointees.
The reports have sparked concern north of the border. “We’re already reaching out to our counterparts in the US and in the international science community,” said Debi Daviau, head of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, a union that represents more than 15,000 government scientists, engineers and researchers.
On Thursday, her organisation released a statement calling the actions of the Trump administration a “chilling reminder” of the years under Stephen Harper’s premiership. “We therefore stand in solidarity with our colleagues and fellow government scientists in the United States … by once again declaring science should never be silenced, and by expressing our hope that the current restrictions on US government scientists will soon be lifted and do not signal a lasting change in US policy on science, similar to the one we fought so long to overturn in Canada.”
In 2013, hundreds of people clad in white lab coats gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for what became one of the most visible acts of resistance against the repression of Canadian government scientists. A mock funeral procession was held over the “death of scientific evidence”, complete with eulogies that took aim at the years of escalating hostility from the Conservative government. Similar protests were held across the country.
Evidence for Democracy, the group behind the Canadian protests, has been in touch with the organisers of the March for Science in the US. The Americans pointed to the Canadian experience to explain why resistance has galvanised so quickly in the US, said Katie Gibbs of Evidence for Democracy. “They saw what happened under Harper and so they’ve seen where it leads and so they’re not taking a wait-and-see approach, they’re acting now.”
Gibbs described the reports this week about the actions of Trump’s team torwards climate science as shocking. “It absolutely echoes what we saw under George Bush in the States and what we saw under Harper, except it’s so much swifter and more brazen than what we saw under Harper,” she said. “But at the same time there’s been a huge resistance coming out of the scientific community and that’s been really heartening to see.”
The Canadian experience offers myriad lessons for the US government scientists, said Kristi Miller-Saunders – who was one of Canada’s first government scientists to be banned from speaking to the media over a paper exploring the 2009 collapse of the sockeye salmon population in British Columbia.
Chief among these lessons is the link between the treatment of scientists and the credibility of the science they create, said the molecular geneticist.
“If the government can suppress information coming out of a programme … that information is not in the public eye anymore,” she said. “And when the information is not in the public eye, the public thinks they’re really not doing much in that area, there really hasn’t been any inroads made. And it’s much easier for the government to then quietly cut the program.”
Science is made within a community, said MacDonald – and that community now stands ready to fight for US government scientists.
“One of the wonderful things that happened for us during our darkest days with the Harper government was the support we had received from international scientists and from our brothers and sisters down in the States,” he said. “Now we’re there to stand with them shoulder to shoulder. We’ll be there for them.”