Looking Back at Canada's Political Fight Over Science

The country’s last prime minister prevented some scientists from talking to the media, while making cuts to research budgets.

Protester with telescope on head with sign saying, "Desperately seeking intelligent light on Parliament Hill!"
A protester takes part in a 'Stand Up for Science' demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Chris Wattie / Reuters)

Scientists this week were rallying around a rogue National Parks account tweeting 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.”

What this eventually led to is a culture of fear of talking about anything.
Once you’ve established that talking is trouble, people will actually begin to silence themselves, which is in some ways the creepiest part of it.

Zhang: Once scientists started protesting, like at the Death of Evidence march, were they able to rack up incremental victories in policy? Or was it a long slog until the next election?

Turner: I think we’ve already seen that if there’s a enough pressure, they will back off. [Ed. note: The U.S. government has since disavowed a gag-order on the USDA, walked back a plan to delete the EPA website’s climate pages, and announced that the freeze on EPA’s grants will lift on Friday.]

But part of the reason you protest and march is to organize. It gets people into an activist mode, particularly people who aren’t used to it.The original march brought attention but they also formed a permanent activist group called Evidence for Democracy that partnered with a whole bunch of others and created a pretty active network of communication. What they absolutely did was make the Harper’s government disposition toward climate science a significant issue in the next election. It was one of the many reasons why the government fell.

Zhang: What made those protests effective?

Turner: Katie Gibbs, who organized the Death of Evidence March, is not only a research scientist, but she’d also been very active in party politics. She knew organizing, and she knew the importance of things like getting people to sign up to mailing lists that you can then use to get them to come to the next thing and the next thing.

One the things Katie and some of the other people involved were willing to do was use strong appeals to emotion. There was certain theatrically, I guess, to the Death of Evidence March. Like, we’re all going to march in lab coats even if we work in kinds of science where we don’t wear lab coats. You had scientists both inside and outside the government actively protesting, which is a thing that really does not come naturally to them.

Zhang: One of the things that happened under Harper was the elimination of Canada’s mandatory long-form census in 2011. We’re talking about “alternative facts” now, but this seemed like an attempt to make certain facts completely unavailable, forever?

Turner: It creates a blindspot in the longterm data. Canada has this short-form census, and then they do this long-form census that is really, really detailed with hundreds of questions. The reason that’s there is to get fine-grained data about things like employment and household composition.

Harper’s government couldn’t just say we’re going to have nothing. They had to shield it with a national household survey that you could choose to do or not, which meant it was junk from a statistical point of view because it was not longer an unbiased sample. That created this hiccup in the data. We have to figure out now how to compensate for that when we’re doing analysis.

Zhang: Justin Trudeau is prime minster now, and he’s reversed most of what Harper’s government did on climate. Aside from the missing census data, has his government been able to undo Harper’s changes?

Turner: The thing we’re finding is you see this around the incredibly rancorous debate around pipelines. The entrenchment happened for good reason when the government was so actively hostile to good environmental stewardship and had naked boosterism for oil and gas resource traction. The public willingness to put trust in government to make good, balanced decisions has been seriously eroded. That’s taking a while to come back, if at all.

If we can look past what’s happening with Trump, the long-term damage will be that distrust and that erosion of a sense of value in public institutions.

Zhang: If American science suffers under Trump, is it possible that would be Canada’s gain?

Turner: Canadian universities and Canadian research labs absolutely lost good people because they didn’t want to work there anymore and they were good enough to go off to England and the U.S. Now, anecdotally, you’re already hearing stories of students wanting to not apply to American schools.

For many years the big thing in Canada was the so-called ‘brain drain.’ A lot of Canada’s best people go to the U.S. because the research budgets are bigger. It’s kind of the research scientist equivalent of Canadian stars going to Hollywood. I will be surprised if there isn’t a certain reluctance—not just Canadians, but people all around the world—about living in the U.S. right now.

NASA’s climate research is one of the best in the world. The best people coming out with climate-science degrees, is that going to be their top dream job in Donald Trump’s administration? Will they then be more open to the idea of doing the same kind of work in Canada under a government that is really active on climate? Probably.