Canadian Scientists Explain Exactly How Their Government Silenced Science

It wasn’t just climate research. Rock snot, sharks and polar bears: All were off-limits during the Harper administration

The Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario is one of the world's leading long-term experiments tracking the effects of climate change, pollution and other factors on freshwater ecosystems. (L. Hayhurst)
smithsonian.com

Whenever he got an interview request from a journalist, Max Bothwell felt a sense of dread. He knew what was about to happen.

It was 2013, and Bothwell was a government scientist with Environment Canada (now Environment and Climate Change Canada), the country’s environmental watchdog. The biologist’s work was fairly non-controversial at the time—he studied a microscopic algae that formed on rocks near streams, affectionately known as “rock snot”—but that didn’t matter. Whenever a journalist reached out to him or any of his fellow government scientists, a clear series of steps followed.

First, the scientist had to contact a special media control center that dealt with these requests. These media relations staffers served as middlemen, modifying the message slightly to suit political goals, according to Bothwell and other Canadian scientists who worked during this all-too-recent era in Canada’s history.

“We were all under a clear understanding that we could be dismissed for talking directly to the press,” Bothwell says.  

Next, the media control center would contact the journalist to request written questions, and then go back to the scientist to get written answers. Then, they would decide whether to send these directly to the reporter or to change or omit parts of the answers. This bureaucratic thicket became so dense that, at one point, it surfaced that a request from a journalist from The Canadian Press to speak with Bothwell resulted in 110 pages of emails between 16 different government communications staffers.

Other times, the strategy was just to delay a response until it was past the reporters' deadlines. Bothwell says he experienced this when outlets like the Vancouver Sun and even National Geographic tried to contact him about his work. 

“That was deliberate. That wasn’t accidental, that was policy,” says Ian Stirling, an Arctic biologist who worked for Environmental Canada for 37 years doing research on polar bears. "They’d simply stall until you went away.”

Besides frustrating scientists themselves, such political interference prevents the public from hearing about crucial work. Environment Canada—like the United States' Environmental Protection Agency, which came under a media blackout and a temporary freeze on grants and contracts during the first week of the Trump Administration—was a taxpayer-funded agency meant to serve the public by providing key information on climate change, air pollution and water quality.

“Disservice is too mild a word” to describe the effect of this muzzling, says Steven Campana, a shark scientist who spent 32 years working for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans. “It’s a cheat for the taxpaying public because it’s the taxpaying public that is funding this government research. When that research leads to very positive things, or even if it's negative, the people that paid for it deserve to hear about it.”

Biologist Max Bothwell spent years studying "rock snot" at Canada's environmental watchdog. (Courtesy Max Bothwell)

Canadian Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had been in power since 2006, but it wasn't until his party won a majority in 2011 that he was given a broader mandate to rule. One of his first steps was to create new restrictions on how and what government scientists could communicate to the public. 

Early on in his administration, Harper boasted that Canada would become an “energy superpower” built on the growth of the Athabasca oil sands in the western part of the country. This oil-rich region would subsequently become a driving economic force for the country, until low global oil prices caused the the loonie (the Canadian dollar) to crash. Climate change science—and environmental regulations—posed a hindrance to that ambitious vision.

Over the next few years, government scientists would experience a tightening of media control, unreasonable approval procedures and drastic funding cuts to climate change research. This muzzling is well-documented: Canadian journalists tracked everything from the shuttering of oceanic research libraries to the attempted defunding of a research station that studied upper atmospheric space winds. A 2013 survey of scientists by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada elaborated on how scientists felt the impact of this political interference.

Yet throughout this process, the Harper administration vehemently denied that any muzzling was taking place. "While ministers are the primary spokespersons for government departments, scientists have, and are readily available to share their research with Canadians," said Scott French, a spokesperson for Ed Holder, Canada's minister of state for science and technology at the time, in 2014.

In November 2015, the current administration of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that government scientists would henceforth be allowed to speak directly to the media. Today, the right for federal scientists to speak openly about their research is written into their contracts, as Erica Gies reported for Hakai last week. Yet the effects of that tumultuous political era continue to leave their mark.

“The public willingness to put trust in government to make good, balanced decisions has been seriously eroded. That’s taking a while to come back, if at all,” said Chris Turner, a Canadian journalist and author of The War on Science: Muzzled Scientists and Willful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang.

Now, Canadian scientists who lived and worked through that era fear that a parallel fate will befall their colleagues under President Donald Trump. “In Harper’s era it was open warfare with the media,” Bothwell said in an email. “I suspect something similar is about to happen in the U.S.”

The effects of Harper’s policies went beyond politically charged fields like climate change. Basically everything government researchers did was censored from the media, according to Canadian scientists who worked during that time. Taken together, these policies led to “a culture of fear of talking about anything,” in Turner’s words.

“Especially in the latter half of the Harper administration, our access to the media was clamped down severely to the point where it was virtually impossible for the media to talk to me for even the most trivial of topics,” says Campana.

For instance, as head of the Canadian Shark Research Laboratory, Campana conducted 30-40 interviews a year about his work. As he puts it, “sharks are very media friendly.” But once the new policies were put in place, the number dropped to around three a year.

In 2014, Campana and a team of government and university researchers released groundbreaking research that was the first to find a new way to determine the age of crustaceans like lobster, shrimp and crabs. “It was such a good news story, because with ages you can do stock assessments much more accurately,” Campana says. “It was huge.” It had nothing to do with climate change.

To get the word out, Campana sent a request for permission to speak to the media about his findings to the communications people. Then he waited. And waited. The days turned into weeks. Two months later, when one of his university coauthors spoke at conference in the U.S. about their work, and perked the interest of American news outlets.

Situations like this didn’t seem to fit into any kind of political narrative, Campana says—they were a side effect of the government’s broad efforts to control climate science.

Bothwell experienced something similar. In 2013, he got a call from a local radio station in Victoria to talk about his rock snot research. Bothwell reached out to his public relations branch, who said they would arrange the live interview with CBC. But there was a catch: Unbeknownst to the Canadian radio listeners, the media control staffers would be listening in on the phone line as well.

“I told the CBC I was not going to do it, and they said 'Ditto, we are not going to talk to you under those circumstances,’” Bothwell recalls. “Basically, mission accomplished.”

The Harper administration ultimately cut $2 million from the Experimental Lakes Area's budget. (L. Hayhurst)

If they broke these rules, scientists were disciplined accordingly.

In 2014, a Canadian TV outlet once contacted Campana for comment on an incident when a great white shark followed a kayaker into U.S. waters. “There were no implications for Canada whatsoever, and no conceivable way that something like that could embarrass the government,” he says. So he went ahead and gave the interview—without prior approval.

He recalls swiftly receiving a letter of discipline in his file and a threat of severe punishment upon a second infraction.

“Working under those conditions was demoralizing to many,” he said in a follow-up email. “But to me it was even more frustrating. The working conditions were destroying our productivity, because it was forcing unnecessary inefficiency on us. We were having our hands tied—although we still kept our jobs, we basically were prevented from actually doing any science.”

Other scientists opted to keep their heads down to avoid drawing the government’s ire. Stirling recalls that in 2012 year, colleagues and friends of his were allowed to attend a big Arctic conference in Montreal. However, he recallst hat they were escorted around by government chaperones who would shield and filter possible media questions, listen to them speak to other scientists and track which research posters they read. 

Stirling and his colleagues were working on long-term data sets that tracked the effect of climate on polar bears (he literally wrote the book on polar bears and climate). The only way they were able to pull this off was by quietly seeking secondary funding sources and conducting the work simultaneously with other studies. “We just kept a low profile,” Stirling says.

The Harper administration also employed a more direct tactic: Funding cuts.

One high-profile case involved the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory, which had its funding source pulled in 2012 (some funding was later restored). Another was the attempted shutdown in 2012 of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), one of the most important facilities in the world for tracking the long-term effects of climate change, pollutants and other factors on freshwater ecosystems and fish.

When the government announced they would no longer fund the ELA, there was a public outcry, says the ELA’s current executive director, Matthew McCandless. Environmental activists protested the cuts, while scientists and politicians criticized the government. “It was thought there was a war on science and this was the battle royale,” says McCandless. “Canadians really rallied behind this cause, and then the Harper government relented and said they would transfer it to a private operator.”

In the end, a budget bill called Bill C-38 cut $2 million from the ELA’s federal funding, but the facility was not shut down. The provincial government in Ontario picked up some of the funding from the government, while the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit independent research organization, ran the project. 

“We would have lost so much,” says McCandless, who took on his position after the ELA transferred to private ownership. “These lakes have told us untold things about how the climate has changed since the ’60s. For example, there are two weeks a year less ice cover in these lakes. They’re getting warmer, they are getting darker. Fish in these lakes are getting smaller.”

If the government hadn’t caved, McCandless says, “It would have made it a lot harder to understand future threats on water resources.”

What can scientists do to protect their data and voices when muzzling begins? Michael Rennie, now a Canada Research Chair in Freshwater Ecology and Fisheries and an assistant professor at Lakehead University, found out the hard way. In 2010 year, he got a “dream job” with the ELA as a research scientist, he says. Then the federal government stopped funding the facility.

Frustrated at the way things were going— it took five clearance forms just to hire a summer student to work for his department—he found an outlet in an anonymous blog. “It was my attempt to let people know what was happening on the inside and at the same time try not to risk my job,” he says.

In a recent article in Scientific American, Canadian scientists suggest more drastic ways to protect the U.S.’s scientific legacy based on their own experience:

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.”

Rennie left in 2014 for a job at Lakehead University in Ontario. But he now works for the ELA again through a fellowship program in collaboration with the university, and has continued to write about his experience. This week, he offered American government scientists advice on a blog post titled “A survivor's guide to being a muzzled scientist.” 

Among them: Get a personal e-mail address, start your own blog and make sure there are multiple copies of your datasets. “Get anonymous, get online. Let people know what’s going on," Rennie says. “Folks that are in academia, that have tenure, that have a bit more job security and have more of an ability to speak their mind can help those in the public service that are challenged with these situations.” 

About Joshua Rapp Learn
Joshua Rapp Learn

Joshua Rapp Learn is a D.C.-based journalist who writes about science, culture and the environment. He has crossed the Sahara Desert, floated down the Amazon River and explored in more than 50 countries.

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