Looking Back at Canada’s Political Fight Over Science

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[1] 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[2], organizing a march[3], and getting each other to run for office[4].

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[5] on the USDA, walked back a plan[6] to delete the EPA website’s climate pages, and announced that the freeze on EPA’s grants will lift on Friday[7].]


  1. ^ study (science.sciencemag.org)
  2. ^ backing up government data (www.wired.com)
  3. ^ organizing a march (www.scientistsmarchonwashington.com)
  4. ^ getting each other to run for office (www.theatlantic.com)
  5. ^ disavowed a gag-order (www.reuters.com)
  6. ^ walked back a plan (www.sciencemag.org)
  7. ^ freeze on EPA’s grants will lift on Friday (www.eenews.net)

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