Image: Richard Webster

Canada’s Censored Scientists Are Helping American Researchers Resist Trump

They faced nearly a decade of muzzling under Stephen Harper. Now they’re helping counterparts in the US fight back.

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Feb 9 2017, 6:48pm

Image: Richard Webster

Just days after taking power last month, the Trump administration reportedly issued gag orders on federal scientists, preventing them from discussing their work with the public. The communications director for Donald Trump's transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that political appointees were reviewing scientific material before publication. In the following weeks, journalists and researchers noted that direct references to climate change were removed from the EPA website.

A widespread ban on scientific communication is an unprecedented move for any modern US administration, but to Canadian scientists who faced nearly a decade of restrictions, political meddling, and funding cuts, the situation is familiar, and extremely worrying.

"It's a very scary situation when a government turns its back on evidenced-based decision making," a Canadian government scientist who was prevented from talking to the media under the Stephen Harper government, which was defeated in 2015, told me.

All photos from the "Death of Evidence" rally in Ottawa, 2012. All images by Richard Webster

The scientist, who requested anonymity for speaking out against government policy at the time, said that her collaborators in the US are now similarly concerned, even backing up their data on non-governmental servers, something she recalls Canadian scientists doing under Harper.

Canadian scientists have both warnings and advice for their American colleagues.

The first is that when a government is hostile to facts and obsessed with control, it won't stop with blocking access to Twitter. Cutting lines of communication was the first step in what Queen's University biologist John Smol called a "death spiral" for Canadian science.

"Becoming a scientist isn't some oath to sit on the sidelines"

Harper moved on from muzzling to extreme budget cuts, and the shutdown of federal science libraries. "You don't let them speak, you cut their funding, you cut their facilities, And then the public doesn't hear from them and it's easier to cut their jobs," Smol said.

To avoid a similar fate, scientists must recognize the threat early and respond rapidly. That runs contrary to their cautious nature, said Katie Gibbs, a former scientist who created the advocacy group Evidence For Democracy after organizing protests for scientific freedom. 

"Initially we didn't want to seem like crazy activists and raise alarm bells, so we would say 'maybe it isn't that bad," she said. The Harper government began putting barriers between scientists and the public in 2007, but the first major protests didn't occur until 2012.

Gibbs said she that she is encouraged that US scientists are already organizing—there are marches in cities around the country scheduled for April 22, Earth Day—and urged scientists and their supporters not to listen to critics who question the value of symbolic actions like public protest.

"We faced those same criticisms here—we don't hear those criticisms anymore. [After our rally] so many scientists told me it was the first time they had been in a march or protest. They felt empowered and they wanted to know what was next."

Gibbs built her organization largely with volunteers recruited through networks created around the protests, eventually creating a sort of lobbying and PR apparatus that was a first in Canada. She hopes similar long-term organizing will take place in the US, and create a similarly stable, sustained resistance. (The organizers of the US protests have been in touch for advice, she said.)

Jeremy Kerr, a University of Ottawa biologist who took part in the protests, said that scientists "need to prepare for a long series of battles" on multiple fronts, including everything from the relatively comfortable business of writing op-eds, to lobbying legislators and getting out into the community to challenge the administration's credibility. "Not everyone reads the news, and we need to reach those people, too," he said.

Read More: Scientists' New Role in Trump's America: The Resistance

Smol noted that American academic scientists can support their colleagues in government by publicizing results on their behalf—something he was criticized for by the Harper government in 2014. "If we don't speak the void will be filled by someone with a vested interest," he warned.

But while the initial signs of resistance are hopeful, Canadian scientists are also troubled by a response that they are only too familiar with: an appeal to a near-holy form of scientific objectivity that recommends scientists avoid politics, even as political events threaten to consume them.

This was most recently seen in the tepid responses some scientists gave to journalists, and in an op-ed in The New York Times claiming a protest by scientists would "trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about."   

"I think that view is absurd," said Gibbs.

"These issues are political whether we want them to be or not, and scientists are citizens as well—I feel like often have to remind them of that. Becoming a scientist isn't some oath to sit on the sidelines. When we see principles of open communication and freedom of investigation under attack, and political interference in science, we absolutely have a responsibility to speak up."

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