On Jan. 25, President Donald Trump announced a temporary media and funding black-out that effectively gagged federal science agencies (including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Health Department) and clenching research grants in a big neoliberal fist.
This ‘war on science’ has perked the ears of Canadians, who haven’t yet forgotten the Harper era of Canadian politics. The embarrassment and horror of that era — nine years of censorship — became so widely known that Americans are now turning to us for advice on the question: How do we protect our scientific integrity when our leader (a vehement climate-change denier) has silenced our scientific bodies?
First, a refresher for those who have forgotten: in 2007, former prime minister Stephen Harper began perpetuating internal hell for climate scientists. Federal experts were famously muzzled, fired, and praying to hold on to some semblance of a budget.
According to the Public Service of Canada, Environment Canada lost 776 positions and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans lost 276 between 2007-2011: this meant Harper quietly abolished 1/3rd of the environmental workforce in his first 3 years of office. Official orders were not to conduct interviews or speak to the public unless the feds approved their answers.
For scientists, the Liberal party’s election in 2015 was quite literally a breath of fresh air; the duct-tape was peeled off, a Minister of Environment and Climate Change was appointed, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a truce in the war on science.
On Jan. 27, Doug Ericksen, acting EPA spokesperson, announced the grant freeze had been lifted without any cuts or delays. But the future of $100 million additional grants, which remain under “review,” is pending. It has yet to be seen whether this suspension was a scare or a forewarning, but if Trump’s neoliberal agenda is anything like Harper’s, climate science in America can kiss government support goodbye.
More alarmingly, the order of silence has not been lifted. Ericksen stated time is being taken to “align” correspondence with the views of the administration. In the meantime, the EPA website — which usually has an active presence, posting three to four times per day —hasn’t made a peep since Jan. 19, the night before Trump’s inauguration.
There is hope. So far, American scientists have taken our nine years of censorship as a serious warning for implications to come. Before inauguration day, a team at the University of Pennsylvania took initiative on a “data-rescuing hackathon”: they have rescued hundred of government documents and data sets, saving them on DataRescue.org, where they will remain accessible. Things like interactive maps of greenhouse gases and difficult-to-obtain data on methane emissions are now in the hands of non-government officials.
Not only that; people are now wielding social media as weapons of war. At time of writing, ‘Rogue’ Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA, @ActualEPAFacts, and @AltNatParkSer have gained upwards of 700 000 followers. The accounts, allegedly initiated by former government employees, have helped increase awareness around Trump’s duct-tape.
Let us not forget that in Canada, we literally had garbage cans full of data and shredded documents thrown out — research that taxpayers paid for, being destroyed and hidden. So far, Americans have taken every step to avoid falling into the same trap. The data hackathon and rogue Twitter accounts are evidence that citizens do value the integrity of science. This is essential. Across the globe, we live in a time when the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the Earth we inhabit are all in jeopardy; failure to understand the implications of this, as Trump has done, is to sacrifice millions of lives to corporate and political will.
In the upcoming weeks, let’s all hope that rogue scientists (our valiant heroes) will continue to brandish their swords of bravery, so that America might skip the ‘dark age’ that Canada only just emerged from.