Take it from a Canadian: Science in America is headed for dark, dark days

This week, we saw the first of what will surely be many headlines pitting the incoming Trump administration against the outgoing principles of science in government research. One of the President-elect’s key advisers has informed the media that NASA’s climate research division will be dramatically defunded. By quite how much, we don’t currently know — but the statement makes it clear that “politicized climate monitoring” will be a no-go in future budgets. Given that the Trump and his administration have (at times) referred to all climate science as politicized propaganda, that doesn’t leave much room for hope among NASA climate scientists waiting to hear their fate.

There will no doubt be widespread analysis of just what this move means to the future of science in America — both the direct impact of losing labs and regular reports, and the implication that any other arm of federal science might well be next on the firing line. Certainly, it’s depressing to imagine global climate research without a huge proportion of space-based data collection, but how likely is Trump to be able to ruin the overall American research world, as some are predicting?

Though Americans might be surprised to hear it, Canada offers a good example of why there is a very real need to worry, and of how the coming anti-science administration could realistically affect all of national research. My home and native land has been a fair ways down the road America is just now preparing to travel and, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the endpoint is absolutely disastrous.

BRITAIN-G8-SUMMIT-CANADA-PRESSER

Prime Minister Harper, genuinely attempting his most friendly and approachable face.

You Americans tend to think about Canada in a warm, forgiving manner — and we appreciate that. Canada is a country racked with racial inequality, political corruption, and the same wide-ranging socio-economic rot as the rest of the Western world. We have crack-addicted mayors and racially segregated slum towns and inner city overdose epidemics, just like any other modern country (okay, maybe everyone doesn’t have crack addicted mayors). And yet, Americans still like to think of Canada as a quaint little place they can run to and escape any and every social problem they despise.

Quite to the contrary, Americans should be looking to Canada as an example of precisely how not to deal with an anti-science government.

In 2006, Canada elected the Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper to the position of Prime Minister, and formed a new national government that would endure in some form until the end of 2015. During this time, the Harper Government carried out what has come to be widely known as the War on Science. The target wasn’t merely climate change research, but fisheries, forestry, air quality — anything with an environmental focus, it would appear. Perhaps it’s just a big coincidence, but these also seem to be the areas of science that most often produced findings contrary to the interests of Canada’s enormous mining and petroleum industries. They also produced recommendations contrary to the Harper government’s attempts to withdraw from international climate accords.

The government used a variety of methods to carry out its attacks on earth sciences experts and experiments. First, of course, there was the defunding of certain sorts of research, and the public questioning or demeaning of much of the rest. Thousands of scientists lost their jobs. Canada lost its importance within some international research collaborations, simply because it could no longer pitch in as effectively. Due to a deep dependence of government-supported grants, the campaign rippled outward to similar research at universities and private facilities. Scientific libraries were closed, and their contents simply destroyed or thrown in the trash.

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The famous “hockey stick” visualization of uptick in global temperature, created by Mann, Bradley & Hughes in 1999.

But there was also a much more insidious mode of attack, in a project that would become known as “muzzling.” Muzzling was literally the practice of telling government researchers that they may not discuss their research, period. The stated goal was a more coherent, curated face for government research, leaving the media stuff to real media professionals and thus making sure that government communication is effective and efficient — and doesn’t that all sound nice?

As a science writer, I ran into this wall of outright censorship as part of my own work — government scientists in certain fields were simply unavailable by any means, literally afraid to speak with the media. They were subject to arbitrary and capricious rules enforced by distant and unfeeling bureaucrats, and they literally did not know what they could and could not talk about without endangering their careers. Never before had physical scientists felt the need to restrain their speech in this way, but in Harper’s Canada that quickly became the status quo.

An image from the NASA Center for Climate Simulation supercomputer

One of many data visualizations produced by NASA’s Center for Climate Simulation.

Eventually, the practice changed so that all media interaction with government scientists happened via intermediaries, or not at all. I have been told to be satisfied with reviewing a public FAQ page instead of conducting a scheduled interview with an expert — which is also, incidentally, the only time I’ve yelled at anyone as a part of work. These policies created tension, and they stifled the free exchange of ideas that is necessary to do good science. It went far beyond bans on talking to the media — many scientists were restrained even from presenting their work at scientific conferences!

The feeling in the largely apathetic public seemed to be that Canada simply wasn’t the sort of place where that sort of government censorship could go on, and thus it must not be going on, or it must somehow be justified. As a result of this willful blindness, the government was able to spend the better part of a decade attacking science with near impunity.

The attacks on scientific independence were pervasive, and always justified by dishonest statements about trying to, yes, depoliticize science. The government even successfully ended Canada’s mandatory long-form census, eliminating the collection of reliable demographic data that helps track the success or failure of government policies. This was supposedly done to support freedom and privacy, and to save Canadians from largely imaginary penalties for refusing to cooperate.

Trump

This is all to say that, when I hear Americans either saying or implying that American institutions are too strong to be corrupted in just four years, I am not convinced. When I hear people calling this a “pivot” not away from climate science but toward space exploration, I can only roll my eyes. The Trump administration has no genuine interest in Mars, just as the Harper administration never had any genuine interest in making waste-water injection safer, or eliminating all the census-based jail terms that never actually existed. The true goal of these budget reshuffles was and is to scuttle and undermine unwanted scientific discoveries, and to politicize science more than ever before.

ExoMars-Schiaparelli-lander-ESA

Make no mistake: defunding climate research has nothing to do with supporting a mission to Mars.

In Canada this all had an enormous effect. When the exact same sorts of policies take hold in the US, currently the definitive world leader in a huge proportion of the biggest public interest research topics, the effects could be truly historical in scope. Climate skepticism is already based on flimsy and overvalued scraps of “evidence,” or on painting within any remaining dark spots in scientific knowledge. As the respected research outlets of the US Government and its many funded bodies begin to produce a smaller and smaller volume of data, and abstain from more and more of the discussion, the skeptic movement will begin a new, energetic campaign for public mind-share. It will very likely find all new success, as a result.

In Canada, it would be going to far to say that public outrage over science ended up tanking the Harper regime, but it was a significant campaign issue. Harper was attacked at every debate for his science policies, and every opposition party explicitly defined its strategy on science in opposition to the Conservatives’ much-maligned war upon it. It took far too long, and was weighted far too low in the scheme of things, but in the end science in Canada did get a redemption of sorts. For many scientists, labs, and experiments however, the changes in policy came far too late to matter.

ISS grabs SpaceX Dragon capsule with Canadarm, during the docking sequence

The Canadarm was basically the single thing Canada was most proud of when I was growing up.

This isn’t a bracing article about the ability of any motivated citizen to change the system, but a reminder that even advanced nations can very easily fall much further than the US has thus far. Perhaps there’s nothing to do but wait three years and start campaigning to try and take back the throne — but even if that’s the case, advocates for science in the United States need to understand what’s really at stake in coming years.

That way, if things do go south, they can at least avoid having to look back and feel like some portion of their modern problems might have been avoided with a little less complacency along the way.

Top image: A portion of NASA’s earth science satellites. (Credit: NASA)

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