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Making noise

Scientists won’t go quietly as threat of muzzling looms under Trump

Scientists won’t go quietly as threat of muzzling looms under Trump

American marine biologist Andrew Rosenberg openly criticized the muzzling of Canadian federal scientists under the previous Conservative government. Now, he’s troubled at the prospect of it happening under President Trump’s new administration — and he’s mobilizing the scientific community around the world to take a stand.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly ordered employees to stop talking to journalists, putting out news releases, and to cease new grants pending a review. The department’s webpage on climate change is also in the process of being removed, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, departments of agriculture, transportation, and energy have clamped down on public communications and halted their output on social media.

Rosenberg’s group has already penned a letter signed by more than 5,500 scientists worldwide calling on Trump to respect the work they do – especially around climate change. And there’s plans forming among other scientists to host protests in Washington against the “current attacks on science from the new administration.”

“The understanding of the science should not be filtered through a political lens,” said Rosenberg, who’s also a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, based in Cambridge, M.A. “It not only has a chilling effect, but it communicates to the public that the government doesn’t value the work that people are doing for public service.”

The events mirror what happened in Canada for a decade under the previous Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, who was repeatedly accused of muzzling federal scientists and waging a “war on science.”

During those years, many researchers claimed they were gagged from speaking with the media — although there were others who did — and if they were granted permission, they had to jump through excessive hurdles. It fit into an overall disdain for media harbored by Harper and his members of cabinet.

Kristi Miller, head of molecular genetics with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, has become the poster child for the country’s scientist muzzling problem.

Although government scientists in Canada are now encouraged to talk freely following the election of Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on a promise to “treat scientists with respect,” her department still reels from Harper-era funding cuts. She says the situation became so bad in the later years that government communications officers would themselves write the answers to questions from journalists about the work of scientists, or provide scientists with a strict script to follow for public engagements. Miller refused to operate this way, and eventually stopped talking to media altogether.

“If I couldn’t be trusted to provide my expertise, then I wasn’t being true to my science,” Miller said in an interview. “It was less about its impact on me as a scientist as it was about its impact on the competence of the organization and the confidence in the scientific advice.”

She says her forced silence fueled rumors that her research was something the government didn’t like. “If you can’t tell them what you’re doing what’s the first conclusion the public will take? Either that you’re not doing very much or you’re doing stuff that you shouldn’t be doing.”

And on the flip side, those doubts and suspicions forced her to work harder.

“I realized that people were really paying attention and we better be doing good work and providing useful and interesting data,” said Miller.

Previous U.S. administrations have imposed varying levels of restrictions on the ways government workers can talk to the press. In 2013, the Society of Environmental Journalists referred to the EPA under former-President Barack Obama as “one of the most dead, opaque agencies to the press.” But Rosenberg says he hasn’t seen the sorts of department-wide blanket bans that we’re starting to see imposed by Trump.

“The tone and tenor of this administration so far has been very much more aggressive toward scientists,” said Rosenberg, who is worried about how it may deter young scientists from entering the public service. “But there’s an incredible energy in the US science community right now to push back.”

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