Scientists this week were rallying around a rogue National Parks accounttweeting facts about climate change, suggesting a pessimism about how science will fare under Donald Trump. In the president’s first week in office, his administration has moved quickly to restrict communications from U.S. science agencies. The EPA, for example, is reportedly under a media blackout and Trump administration officials are reviewing all content on the agency’s website.
Canadian scientists have seen policy changes like these before. Under Justin Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper, the Canadian government routinely prevented scientists from talking to the media, while downplaying the effects of climate change. The climax in what some have called Canada’s war on science was Bill C-38, a 2012 budget bill that stealthily stripped away environmental protections and cut funding at research institutes around the country. Government scientists lost their jobs, and monitoring stations shut down.
Then, the protests erupted. In July of that year, a few hundred scientists came out to Parliament Hill in white lab coats for a Death of Evidence march, the first of many such protests.Chris Turner is a Calgary-based environmental journalist, who covered science under Harper’s government. He is also the author of The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada. We spoke by phone yesterday about Canada’s experience under Harper. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Sarah Zhang: It’s only day 6 of the Trump administration, and it seems like we’re getting new updates each day about various restriction of U.S. science agencies. Did things move so quickly under Harper in Canada?
Chris Turner: That’s one of the big differences. The Harper government knew it would be wildly unpopular if it was laid out baldly. Theirs was actually quite stealthy, and it took a long time. There were little bits and pieces. One of first things that started to worry people was in early 2011, when a major salmon study in British Columbia came out in the journal Science. It was going to get international media attention because it was showing significant climate-change impacts on salmon populations, and it had international importance.
The scientist working on it was told, “You are not putting out a press release about this, you will not talk to the media about this.” But there were only a handful of scientists being specifically told not to talk.
It really wasn’t until they had a majority government in mid-2011 that Harper’s government did a lot of the stuff, like shutting down basic climate research, dismantling regulatory oversight around environmental issues. That was all buried in a budget bill, piles of these cuts. No government had ever done that before.
Zhang: Should U.S. scientists be optimistic? They are already organizing—backing up government data, organizing a march, and getting each other to run for office.
Turner: It’s so brazen under Trump, it makes it impossible to say they’re not doing it. They’re doing it, and they’re not trying to hide it. Granted, they made it pretty clear about hating EPA during the campaign.So much had been done by the time people even noticed it in Canada.
That was part of the reason why it got so worrisome. Things like, if you’re a scientist working for Environment Canada, there’s nothing in your contract with the government that says you’re entitled to speak to a reporter. In practice, informally, journalists have always been able to call. What the Harper government did was take those things and turn them on their heads. They’ll say, “A government scientist has never had permission. We haven’t changed anything. All we’ve done is streamline communications to serve Canadians better.”