Political Suppression of Science: Lessons from Canada

Canadian scientists are lending support to worried American peers. 

Published January 23, 2017

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has touched off a mad scramble by some scientists to back up critical scientific data as government researchers reckon with the new administration’s threats to scrub climate data and strip funding for ongoing climate research.

In Toronto, Canadian researchers are archiving US climate data, and University of Pennsylvania collective DataRescue is organizing events across the United States that harness volunteers to move climate and environmental data to private and international servers.

To many, this activity may seem like an overreaction. But for some Canadian scientists, firsthand experience with government suppression of science makes these threats all too real. That the White House website, taken over by the Trump administration on Friday, now makes no mention of climate change, further supports these worries.  

During the 10-year term of Canadian Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, some government scientists were unable to publish their research or talk to the public without minders; research was defunded or blocked; and invaluable data archives dating back a century were destroyed in acts dubbed “libricide.” Reports were literally tossed into dumpsters.

Robert MacDonald has worked as a government scientist in Canada for 30 years, remediating contaminated sites on federal property. He is also a steward for the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), a union that represents 15,000 government scientists, engineers, and researchers. Prior to Harper, “it was not unheard of for someone at my level to brief a minister,” he says. But during the Harper years, he had to create speaking notes that needed to be approved by government communications personnel before talking to anyone. “The message was very much controlled,” he says.

In 2013, PIPSC surveyed its members and published a report—The Big Chillon the experience of being a government scientist under Harper. The survey found that nearly nine out of ten federal scientists surveyed felt they could not share their concerns about public safety or the environment without censure or retaliation.

“The result that I found the most shocking was that nearly one-quarter reported being directly asked to exclude or alter information for nonscientific reasons,” says MacDonald.

Although the libraries were destroyed ostensibly to save money, their loss has made MacDonald’s work in remediation more costly, he says. “In trying to piece together where old tanks or old buildings were that may have contained hazardous substances, those old files were priceless,” he says. “They saved us an enormous amount of money, not having to sample and study everything.”

So now, in the United States, scientists are learning from the Canadian experience—and also their own during the George W. Bush years, which saw censorship, distortion, and manipulation of science on unprecedented levels, says Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Those dark times pushed former president Barack Obama to take steps to strengthen protections for scientific integrity—steps Halpern says he hopes will hold. Earlier this month, for instance, the US Department of Energy (DOE) published its revised scientific integrity policy, which states that “all scientists, engineers, or others supported by DOE are free and encouraged to share their scientific findings and views.”

Halpern says these changes mark improved institutional support for science. As proof, he cites the vocal pushback to a recent questionnaire sent by the Trump transition team to the DOE asking the agency to identify employees who have worked on climate change. “The scientific community spoke up strongly and persistently and the transition team walked back that memo and disowned it,” he says.

Winning the hearts and minds of the public is another critical piece of the effort to safeguard science, says Halpern. Where some conservatives decry regulations that hinder industry, scientists must remind people that their work protects “the air that we breathe, and the water we drink, and the long-term ability of the United States and the world to respond to complex science-based challenges, whether it’s climate change or disease pandemics,” says Halpern.

In Canada, scientists are now working more freely, partly because the PIPSC successfully bargained with the new Canadian government, led by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to include in federal scientists’ contracts their right to speak freely about their research.

And now those scientists are offering solidarity to their American colleagues, who are facing an uncertain future during the new Trump administration. MacDonald says: “Much like they supported us during our battle with the Harper government, we’ll be standing with them.”