Four years ago hundreds of Canadian scientists gathered on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, donning their white lab coats to protest what they said was the “death of scientific evidence.” They held a mock funeral procession and prepared eulogies. Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, they warned, appeared to be waging a war on science—imposing draconian restrictions on scientists’ engagement with the media and proposing a national science budget that slashed research funding and closed certain research centers.
Some of those actions took Canadian scientists by surprise, and a number of them are warning their U.S. counterparts not to be similarly caught off guard following Donald Trump’s election victory in November. Several are offering to help U.S. scientists back up their data, and urging them to make their case to the public about the importance of their research—and of factual evidence itself.
“There was a feeling that the government was not interested in expert opinion, and I think it’s the same kind of thing that you are probably going to see with the new [Trump] administration” in the U.S., says David Tarasick, a senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada (the equivalent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). Tarasick says Harper’s government prevented him from speaking to the media about compelling research titled “Unprecedented Arctic Ozone Loss in 2011” for two weeks after the report was published in Nature. His agency simply denied interview requests without stating any reason, he says. Instead, that media office supplied “approved” statements to attribute to Tarasick, but he says he had never seen or approved that language himself. (The agency’s media office said at the time that the interview simply “cannot be granted,” according to the National Post).
There were battles on other fronts, too. The Harper administration chose not to provide any monies for a large funding office that supported climate change research, and without those grants Canadian scientists often either changed focus or traveled to other countries where they believed they could get funding more easily. Those scientists often cited the toxic scientific atmosphere and dwindling research funds as their reason for leaving, says Thomas Duck, a professor of physics and atmospheric science at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “In about six months my team of about 10 people went down to just myself and a graduate student. But my story is hardly unique. It was a common story of many research groups,” Duck says. “It takes decades to build up scientific capacity but it takes months to irretrievably destroy it.”
President-elect Trump has already launched opening salvos against science and the press. He has expressed skepticism about climate change science (calling it a hoax created by the Chinese) and vaccine safety (once tweeting, “Why doesn’t the Obama administration do something about doctor-inflicted autism?”). He has shown disdain for the media and denied press access to outlets that have given him unfavorable coverage. He has also pledged to slash or shrink multiple federal science agencies. And Trump’s top picks for cabinet appointments—Scott Pruitt at the EPA, along with departmental nominees Rick Perry for Energy and Ryan Zinke for Interior—have expressed doubts about humans’ role in climate change, leaving many U.S. scientists to wonder what these actions augur for the future, and for their jobs.
Some of them are already seeking a way out. Within 48 hours of last month’s presidential election, two U.S. climate change scientists contacted a Canadian colleague, Andrew Weaver, asking him to act as a job reference because they were going to (and did) seek jobs in Canada, says Weaver, who was a vocal critic of Harper while working as Canada Research Chair in Climate Modeling and Analysis at the University of Victoria. “It’s going to be a good time for Canadian science, I guess,” he says. Weaver has recently entered Canadian politics himself and is now an elected official in his provincial legislature.
Ahead of next month’s presidential inauguration, thousands of U.S. scientists have already signed protest letters, and science organizations are offering to counsel the Trump transition team. Various Obama administration officials are also making the rounds with press conferences and interviews, seeking to cement their scientific legacy and publicly emphasizing the value of science.
Citing bitter experience, our neighbors to the north have suggested further steps to safeguard science in this country. Following a recent skirmish over a Trump transition team request for the names of Department of Energy staffers who worked on climate change initiatives under Pres. Barack Obama, Canadian scientists are working with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania library and a nonprofit called the Internet Archive to back up environmental data sets and materials—including research around air pollution and greenhouse gases—that they believe could be vulnerable under a Trump administration. “The Harper government closed many of the different science libraries in Canada,” Duck says. “It was done in a very chaotic fashion and we have almost certainly lost data that we used to have.”
Weaver suggests U.S. scientists take other specific action, too. “I would say that the American academic scientists have a duty and a responsibility to get out there and communicate the value of the science they do. The public will only support the science if they understand its value. You don’t have to attack Trump, you just have to let people know why science is important,” he says. “Ultimately it is the public that sways governments—not any one or two scientists.” Americans could also look for a potential example in Canadian scientists’ recent actions to enshrine their ability to speak to the media, included as part of their recently negotiated contracts with the current government, Duck says. “Following the defeat last year of the Harper government, we vowed that no government should ever again silence science. This new provision will help ensure that remains the case now and in the future,” Debi Daviau, president of the Canadian union that helped hammer out the federal contracts, said in a public statement.
“In Canada the government was subject to a lot of criticism because of the message control, and it’s generally regarded to have contributed significantly to their loss in last year’s election,” Tarasick notes. “One of the new government’s very first acts was to declare that scientists were free to speak to the media.”