We thought the "war on science" was over


(Death of Evidence Protest, July 2012 | Richard Webster via E4D)

On a lackluster summer day in July 2012, University of Ottawa biology professor Scott Findlay put on his lab coat, but instead of going to the lab, he went to Parliament Hill. He was joined by hundreds of other scientists. Some of the protesters wore their lab coats, while others sported black. A mock funeral procession was held for the death of scientific evidence. Signs read “No science, no evidence, no truth, no democracy.”

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper had made drastic cuts to federal research programs and muzzled government scientists. It was Findlay’s first time participating in a protest. Five years later, he didn’t expect to have to pick up the picket signs once again. This time, he will fight the battle down in Washington D.C.

Scientists around the world are concerned about President Donald Trump’s stance on evidence-based policy, especially when it comes to the environment. Trump has previously called climate change a “very expensive hoax” invented by the Chinese, and “bullshit.” Tweets aside, Trump’s also taken executive action in stifling climate change awareness. In his first few days in office, all mention of global warming or climate change was removed from the White House website, and he’s taken steps to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a longstanding national organization whose “mission is to protect human health and the environment” largely through regulatory enforcement. To begin with, he’s appointed ardent climate change denier Myron Ebell to lead the EPA transition team. Following the transition, Scott Pruitt was chosen as head administrator to the EPA. Pruitt, an attorney general from Oklahoma, has sued the EPA several times and has backtracked on his stance on whether or not climate change is caused by humans.

A budget proposal from March revealed a 31% cut to the EPA’s funding that includes a 70% cut to its climate protection budget and a 97% cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The budget still needs approval from Congress, but the proposal gives a perspective on the direction that Trump plans to take with climate policy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an organization that produces climate research, is also facing a 17% cut, and Trump has also threatened NASA’s earth science program. These organizations produce data and comprehensive analytics that are used globally.

All this comes on the heels of the hottest year on record, in 2016. Perhaps coincidentally the Oxford English dictionary dubbed post-truth the word of the year, as usage spiked during Brexit and the American election campaign. Scientific evidence is essential in informing policy, but a world of post-truth politics threatens to turn this paradigm on its head.

A lack of scientifically-informed policy mobilised Canadian scientists during Harper’s administration. Following the 2012 Death of Evidence protest Findlay co-founded the grassroots organization Evidence for Democracy, a group that advocates for evidence-based policy-making. Members of Evidence for Democracy have been advising their American counterparts on how to deal with a government that oppresses scientists.

The dramatic new direction for environmental policy in the United States will put a strain on Canadian climate action. The EPA, NASA, and NOAA provide enormous of amounts of climate data that are used globally both in research and informing policy-makers.

Nicholas Rivers, Canada Research Chair on Climate and Energy Policy, lists the Social Cost of Carbon as a key study produced by the EPA. The study calculates the economic costs per ton of greenhouse gas emitted, which allows policy makers to estimate the financial costs and benefits of their regulations. Rivers doesn’t anticipate an immediate loss of information for policy-making, but said that joint regulations may be hard to adhere to if support is pulled from the American side.

The United States and Canada have highly integrated economies, and regulatory policies are often made in conjunction, particularly when it comes to vehicular and methane emissions. Canada has been lockstep with the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), which are American regulations aimed at improving the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks. Pulling away from these regulations would mean less efficient fuel standards for vehicles. “It will be hard for Canada to move forward on its vehicle regulations on its own because we’re a pretty integrated market for vehicles,” said Rivers. If the American vehicular industry is freed from regulations, having to stick to restrictions could put the Canadian industry at an economic disadvantage.

Regulating methane emissions has also been a joint effort between Canada and the United States. “The two countries are moving forward together and that’s been put into jeopardy,” said Rivers, “Canada has announced that it’s still going to go ahead with its methane regulations, even without U.S action, but it’s certainly something that will take some of the wind out of the sails of Canadian regulatory action.” As a greenhouse gas, methane is around eighty-four times as potent as carbon dioxide and is often released during the exploration and processing of natural gas. Methane regulations help keep these industrial processes in check.

Rivers said that although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems committed to Canada’s climate policies, a space has been opened for criticism from those who oppose climate action. “One of the big worries about climate action is "Canada’s going to do something, and other places aren’t going to do their bit, so we’re going to be the suckers,’” said Rivers.

American research institutes like EPA and NOAA also collaborate with and provide funding for researchers in Canada. Michael Rennie is a freshwater ecologist from Lakehead University who often uses data from the NOAA weather service. He uses their data in studying the impact of the weather on fish populations in the Great Lakes. “I think there’s huge aspects of my research projects that we just wouldn’t be able to do,” he said. Without climate data, Rennie is missing a fundamental variable in his research.

Perhaps one of Trump’s most dramatic cuts are those to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The initiative aims to protect the Great Lakes watershed through pollution clean-up, combatting invasive species, and restoring wetland habitats. A 97% percent budget cut has been proposed for this project, bringing their funds from $300 million down to $10 million. “It’s beyond just ‘We want to monitor your communication. We are going to impose clandestine cuts that are going to really impact our ability to do any kind of environmental science,’” said Rennie about the funding cuts.

Nature doesn’t recognize national boundaries. Protection of the Great Lakes is a joint responsibility. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the Great Lakes “provides the foundation for billions of dollars in economic activity,” and “are a direct source of drinking water for 10 million Canadians.”

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the International Joint Commission oversee the health of the Great Lakes. Governments from both sides of the border supply funding, but Rennie said the United States provides the “lion’s share.” He doesn’t know how Americans will maintain their end of the agreement if the funding cuts are put into place. “That short-sighted viewpoint fails to recognize the fact that economic sustainability and environmental sustainability are essentially the same thing,” said Rennie, “You can’t have one without the other.” Without projects like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, watersheds are in danger of pollution and invasive species. Municipalities along the Great Lakes are concerned, as much of the local economy depends on fishing and tourism, and after all, the lakes provide their drinking water.

Rennie was also a federal scientist during Harper’s administration. During this time, he started his blog Unmuzzled Science to share his experiences as a researcher under Harper’s government. On his blog, he wrote that he had “grown pretty fed up of the bureaucratic monster,” and “it literally felt like the philosophical foundations of scientific inquiry within the federal government were crumbling.”

On his blog, Rennie has voiced his concerns over what Trump’s presidency might mean for the scientific community. He has offered American researchers advice on how to deal with a government that down-weighs the importance of scientific transparency. Under the threat of Trump’s muzzling, he urged other researchers to find ways to collaborate and share their work while protecting their data. “It’s very reminiscent to what happened in the Harper years in terms of the de-emphasis on environmental monitoring and assessment,” said Rennie.

In a post about “alternative facts” and the American government, Rennie wrote “Don’t forget, we’re all in this together, and it’s up to all of us, no matter what country we are in, to help combat the current war against objectivity.”

Evidence for Democracy shares Rennie’s concerns over science and the environment. “People sometimes forget that you could set rivers on fire,” said Evidence for Democracy Program Coordinator Stephanne Taylor, regarding the importance of protecting the Great Lakes. “There were huge impacts to human health across the board.”

Taylor recently completed her PhD in physical oceanography at McGill University. “We used U.S. data all the time,” she said, “That’s this huge storehouse of information, and if that goes down or is compromised in some way by political meddling, that’s going to have an enormous impact on both Canadian scientists and scientists around the world.” Taylor’s former meteorology lab also relied on NOAA’s world-class climate data and analysis. The group often compared their own climate models to those done by NOAA.

Taylor is glad that Trudeau is more supportive of science but said that things can still change very quickly. “We need to stay vigilant and keep pushing for more robust and progressive science policy,” she said.

Evidence for Democracy will once again be organizing a protest in support of evidence-based policy. It is hosting the Ottawa satellite for March for Science, a larger demonstration that will be held in Washington D.C. “The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter,” reads the March for Science website. “It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.”

The protest is planned for Earth Day 2017, with satellite demonstrations across the United States and around the world. Hundreds of scientists and science supporters are expected to swarm the streets, this time, on Capitol Hill.


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