As the Trump administration prepares to censor inconvenient environmental science, Canada, of all places, offers some shocking illustrations of the tyrannical trend—and lessons on how to mount an effective resistance.
The issue is not the government censorship of science in general. Rather, it’s an issue of attacks on federal funding for projects that might limit harmful economic activities, such as mining and oil drilling.
Canada defined the trend well. Between 2006 and 2016, the government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper systematically reduced the capacity of publicly funded federal science to monitor the impacts of air, water, and carbon pollution from the country’s aggressive resource industries—by cutting budgets and firing staff.
Harper, a right-wing figure with a penchant for authoritarian politics, also imposed draconian communication protocols on federal scientists. To the dismay of magazines such as Nature, many Canadian scientists found themselves unable to speak to the press. Soviet-like political handlers even accompanied federal scientists to international gatherings.
The closure of a remote freshwater research station proved a turning point. It galvanized one group of scientists, who then began a highly effective campaign against government attacks on environmental science.
During the battle, scientists learned how to communicate more effectively with the media and the public; how to build public support for their work; and how to overcome scientists’ fears of advocacy.
Lessons from the campaign have special relevance to US scientists now facing a new administration hostile to environmental and climate science, as well as for Canadians who now have, on paper, a more science-friendly administration—but one that has done little to reverse the damage done by its predecessor.
The Harper years. The assault was manifestly ideological: Harper, an evangelical Christian and admirer of Tea Party Republicans, believed that it was his sacred duty to shrink the role of government and thereby reanimate a stagnating marketplace.
Harper’s largely undeclared strategy to reduce the effectiveness of environmental evidence in public policy-making started slowly and then escalated. He began by axing the position of National Science Advisor to the government in 2008 and then withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011.
Later he progressed to muzzling government scientists who had something to say about destabilizing climate change, disappearing Arctic sea ice, the tar sands, or failing salmon fisheries. Next, science illiterates got top leadership positions heading federal agencies: One science minister, Gary Goodyear, was even a creationist. By 2013, a survey of 4,000 federal scientists found that nine out of 10 didn’t feel they could speak about their work to the media.
In the end, the government closed several key environmental agencies and gutted the nation’s most critical environmental legislation—such as the Fisheries Act—with the explicit goal of easing the approval of pipelines and resource extraction. Even science libraries got trashed.
Scientists fight back. The resistance unexpectedly rallied around Harper’s decision to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) in 2012. For nearly 50 years, this gem of freshwater science performed groundbreaking research on acid rain, toxic metals, phosphates, algal blooms, climate change, and mercury that eventually strengthened water pollution legislation around the world.
Harper abruptly closed the pioneering facility, the first to conduct experiments on the impacts of global pollutants on whole lakes in northern Ontario—on the grounds that it no longer responded to “research priorities.” When the government terminated the ELA’s 40 scientists, it told them not to speak to the press.
But Diane Orihel, a PhD student studying algal blooms and mercury pollution at ELA, didn’t think that was right. She founded a coalition that led a two-year-long struggle to save the Experimental Lakes Area.
First, she had to redefine what it meant to be a scientist. Like many of her peers, Orihel initially thought her job as a freshwater researcher was to do experiments and write papers. “But conflict drives people to take action, and I was motivated to become a voice for this research facility.”
In the process, Orihel and her coalition discovered the poverty of their scientific educations. As scientists, they didn’t know what democratic options were available to citizens to lobby government, or even how to distribute media advisories.
The second lesson, she says, was that scientists couldn’t save science in the public interest if Canadians didn’t know what kind of specific research they were doing.
To help spread the word about ELA’s pivotal contributions to controlling acid rain and fertilizer-induced water pollution from Europe to North America (more than 1,000 peer-reviewed studies), Orihel and her colleagues created a public awareness campaign. It included an appealing website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account. Large ads also ran in national newspapers, with the headline “ELA is closing just when the planet needs it most.”
The power of the people. As the campaign gained momentum, water experts from Korea to Sweden condemned ELA’s closure. But angry scientists alone didn’t have the clout to save the project. “Sometimes we underestimated the power of the people,” recalls Orihel.
As aquatic scientists methodically reached out to First Nations, lakeside cabin owners, industry leaders, municipal politicians, academics, and environmental groups, the resistance grew. The campaign snowballed in unexpected ways. “I thought I was trying to save the ELA,” recalls Orihel. “But I realized that the ELA situation was a vehicle to tell the larger story about what the Harper government was doing to environmental science.”
Soon tens of thousands of Canadians signed petitions to save the ELA, while political parties rewrote their election platforms. Meanwhile, the press penned more than 500 stories on the little-known lab. Even a comedian on national television denounced the Harper closure.
“It is really important to connect with people from all walks of life and all political stripes,” says Orihel, now an assistant professor in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University. She also discovered that it was equally important to put “ordinary Joes” to work with petitions, open letters, and requests to speak to their parliamentary representatives.
At the same time, scientists with the campaign learned how to speak directly to the media without jargon—not an easy feat for the profession. “For most scientists, speaking in sound bites is not a natural talent but an acquired skill,” says Orihel. But she now realizes that it is one that should be taught and practiced by all scientists on the public payroll.
Another lesson was to overcome fear about scientific advocacy. “A lot of young scientists feel that if you advocate for something, it will tarnish your reputation and you’ll not get grants or a job,” says Orihel. As a result, the campaign’s greatest allies proved to be retired freshwater scientists who felt they had nothing to lose.
Rebuilding after resistance. In the end, the campaign helped to save the ELA, but in a radically different form. After the Harper government steadfastly refused to reinstate funding for the modest $2-million-a-year program, the ELA found new owners: the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the provincial government of Ontario.
In retrospect, Jeffrey Hutchings of Dalhousie University, one of Canada’s most celebrated fish scientists, says the lessons of how to resist attacks on environmental science are simple. “I would tend to agree that public awareness, and general disdain, of the censorship of government science and government scientists was something that took politicians unaware.” Popular outrage over the gutting of the Fisheries Act was so forceful that the Harper government quietly shelved plans to dismantle the Species at Risk Act, Hutchings says.
The resistance eventually played a role in Harper’s electoral defeat in 2016, but political change has not yet restored many science jobs or rolled back program cuts. Harper’s legacy still shadows the nation, much like a lingering North African drought.
To this day, Canada still has an inflated reputation as a progressive scientific nation. But its resource-based economy has always been wary of environmental science. In many respects, Harper played to the nation’s roots as a freewheeling mining republic that has always been fearfully allergic to scientific evidence that might limit the damming of rivers or the mining of asbestos, bitumen, or uranium.
Long-lasting damage. The new Justin Trudeau administration may talk a good line, but it has had serious trouble respecting scientific evidence. By approving three bitumen pipelines and a big liquid natural gas project, the government handily trumped Harper and ignored the fundamental math on climate change.
Although open censorship of federal scientists has largely ended (it still bedevils the Park Service, for example), the government has yet to reinstate and refund many of the programs that Harper killed, let alone restore key environmental legislation such as the Fisheries Act.
Under the old act, it was unlawful to harm fish habitat in Canada, a country with at least three million lakes. Now only fish of commercial value have standing under the law, and protection is minimal.
Rather than restore the original legislation, the Trudeau government has created a lengthy public-hearing process on the matter. As a result, fish-killing pipelines and mining projects have won permits with minimal oversight of aquatic impacts.
“I’m not sure the Fisheries Act will ever be restored, and if [it is], the government will take their sweet time doing it,” adds David Schindler, the founder of the Experimental Lakes Area and one of world’s top freshwater scientists.
Given the growing illiteracy of the public and the rising volatility of Western democracies, Schindler says that citizens must demand that their governments create more independent and egalitarian scientific bodies—such as the US Geological Survey—that are run by scientists and can’t be undermined by political interference.
“There will always be groups that want to sweep science under the rug,” says Schindler. “But the goal of science is to present both the good and the bad, so that politicians can make good policy decisions.”
As revolutionary political actors increasingly ignore uncomfortable scientific evidence, that radical idea must outlive the legacies of Harper, Trudeau, and Trump.
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