Stephen Harper's War On Science

The first time I heard about the protocol was from the BBC. A few months ago, they published an article called "Canadian government is 'muzzling its scientists'. The piece explained that back in 2008, soon after Stephen Harper won his second minority, his Conservatives issued a new "protocol" to all scientists working for the federal government — so that's people in departments like Health Canada, Environment Canada, and the Department for Fisheries and Oceans. The protocol says that those scientists are no longer allowed to talk to the media without permission from Harper's public relations officials first. If a scientist wants to discuss their work, Conservative PR people decide whether or not they're allowed to. And if the interview is approved, Conservative PR people decide what the scientists are — and are not — allowed to say.

“Just as we have one department," the protocol claims, "we should have one voice... This should include asking the [scientist] to respond with approved lines.”

Harper has not been shy about enforcing this new rule.

So, for instance: the head of molecular genetics at the Department for Fisheries and Oceans did some research into why salmon populations in Western Canada are going down. She found that it might be because of a cancer-related virus in the water — one that might have gotten there from nearby industrial fisheries. Her findings were published in Science, one of the most reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals in the world. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell helped to get it started. But when Science sent out a press release about the article and, as usual, supplied the scientist's name as a contact, reporters discovered that she wasn't actually allowed to talk to them about it. Harper's government didn't want her to; her findings didn't fit with the Conservatives' pro-industry stance. So they were enforcing their new rule and refusing to let her discuss her work in public. (Later, when the BBC wanted to talk her about the protocol; the government wouldn't let her talk about that either.)

Now just so we're clear here, I'm going to repeat that in all-caps:


Sadly, that's far from the only example. Even when Harper's PR people do allow a scientist to be interviewed, they will delay giving their permission until the news cycle is over, pass journalists onto other scientists more likely to toe the Conservative line, and publish reports they don't like late on Friday afternoons in order to bury them. When reporters had questions for scientists at Health Canada about whether nuclear fall-out from the Fukushima reactor might reach Canada's west coast after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Harper's PR people dragged their feet on the requests until reporters were forced to ask European scientists instead. The same thing happened with Environment Canada scientists who discovered new information about the hole in the ozone layer above the Arctic. A scientist who wrote a fictional book about climate change was told he was not allowed to read from it in public. Others have been kept from attending conferences. And when they have been allowed to attend, media "minders" have been sent along to make sure the scientists don't step out of line and discuss their own work without permission. As Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin puts it, "This is the type of thing I used to see when, back in the 1980s, I reported from the Soviet Union."

The Experimental Lakes Area
Of course, those are the federal scientists who still have jobs. Many of them don't. The Conservatives are firing them and shutting down their research projects at a staggering rate. Hundreds of scientists are being let go from Environment Canada. Almost every single one of the 70 scientists who monitor pollution in our oceans is being eliminated, leaving only "five junior biologists scattered across the country". Harper has also shut down research at the Experimental Lakes Area, "the best known freshwater research facility in the world".  They've been studying the effects of pollution there since the 1960s, fueling hundreds of publications and providing vital information to scientists around the globe. Since some of that research shows chemicals released by major industrial projects (like the Alberta tar sands) can be harmful, it seems the project made Harper's hit list. "To have it shut down is just appalling," one Harvard science professor told the Winnipeg Free Press. "It's just embarrassing." A professor from Stockholm University was even more upset. "This is the kind of act one expects from the Taliban in Afghanistan," he wrote in a letter to politicians in Canada, "not from the government of a civilized and educated nation."

Harper is also shutting down Canadian research into the thinning of the ozone layer. He's closing a network of 17 research stations across the country. They've been operating for 45 years, providing a third of all of the ozone readings in the entire world. One American scientist called the decision "unthinkable". There's also word they may close the World Ozone and Ultraviolet Radiation Data Centre, which hosts decades' worth of international research. And shut down storage of vitally important, one-of-a-kind ice core samples. And they've already cancelled federal support for the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. That's the main organization that funds climate-related science at Canadian universities.

Meanwhile, the science shows the thinning of the ozone layer is getting worse and worse.

Then there's the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy. It was started by another Conservative Prime Minister — Brian Mulroney — back in the '80s. The idea of the Roundtable is to bring together experts from a variety of fields in order to find common ground and come up with ideas that are good for both the environment and the economy. It's "dominated" by people Harper has appointed himself. Some members represent major corporations, like mining companies and energy producers. Others are environmentalists, labour leaders, or even former ministers. The current head is the former Chief of Staff for Jim Flaherty, Harper's own Finance Minister. But when those industry leaders and environmentalists made the mistake of discussing the possible benefits of a carbon tax, the Conservatives had the Roundtable permanently shut down. John Baird, our Foreign Affairs Minister, explained the decision in parliament. "It should agree with the government," he claimed. "No discussion of a carbon tax that would kill and hurt Canadian families." (He didn't explain how exactly a carbon tax kills people. Or why an organization specifically created to give independent expert advice should repeat whatever the government says.)

Shutting down the Roundtable is just one part of Harper's giant new budget bill. C-38 is more than 400 pages long and 170 of them are dedicated to gutting Canada's current system for environmental protection, ensuring that dissent on environmental issues will be even further silenced in the future. Environmental assessments will no longer be required by the federal government. Instead of expert review panels making decisions on major industrial projects with input from scientists, business leaders and the public, ministers will have the power to approve those projects all by themselves. Fewer people will be allowed to speak to the panels that do survive — and for less time. Oversight bodies are being shut down. Review periods are being slashed. Canada's only survey into water consumption is being cancelled after 30 years.

And while environmental legislation like this wouldn't usually be included in a budget, doing it this way allows the Conservatives to stifle criticism even further. Bills are studied by relevant committees made up of MPs from both sides of the floor — environmental bills are examined by the Environmental Committee, but budget bills are only examined by the Finance Committee. When Opposition MPs complained that all of these environmental measures weren't going to be properly examined, the Conservatives did allow the environmental impact of the budget to be studied by a specific sub-committee of the Finance Committee. But then, on the first day the sub-committee met, three Conservative Ministers made a surprise appearance. They took up most of the time giving speeches, leaving the opposition only 20 minutes to ask questions about all 170 pages.

At the same time, the Conservatives have been going out of their way to demonize environmental groups. Harper's government has officially listed environmentalists alongside Islamic extremists and white supremacists as a "terrorist threat". They've denounced organizations who oppose the proposal for a massive new oil pipeline as "radical groups" who "threaten to hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda". And they've dismissed them as being funded by "foreign special interest groups." (That criticism is particularly absurd: these same Conservatives used to encourage environmental groups to seek foreign financial support and those groups still receive far less of it than the companies supporting the tar sands do.) Our Environment Minister, Peter Kent, went even further: he publicly claimed that environmental groups are being used "to launder offshore foreign funds" (but has conveniently declined to provide any evidence of it). Now, the Conservatives are following up on that rhetoric in their budget bill: millions of dollars will be spent auditing charities — including environmental charities — to make sure they're not spending more money than they are allowed to spend supporting or criticizing government policies.

Meanwhile, Canada's National Science Advisor has retired and Harper just hasn't bothered to replace him. So we don't have a National Science Advisor anymore. And our Minister for Science & Technology isn't exactly an expert. He claims that the question of whether or not he believes in evolution is "irrelevant" – and at best seems to lack even the most basic understanding of what evolution is. ("We are evolving every year, every decade," he nonsensically explained to reporters, "whether it's to... walking on cement versus anything else, whether it's running shoes or high heels, of course we are evolving to our environment".)

Nature doesn't exactly love our PM
Scientists all over the world have responded to this crackdown on science with outrage and disgust. Nature, another of the world's most respected scientific journals, has published more than one scathing editorial about Harper's new protocol. They've called it "unacceptable political interference... [responsible for] muzzling scientists... openness is being held ransom to media messages that serve the government's political agenda."

As the journal points out, "Access to scientific evidence that informs policy is not a luxury. It is an essential part of our right to know." The last few centuries of world history have taught us that. An attack on the free-flow of scientific information is an attack on the fundamental principles of democracy. Voters need to be informed in order to make a responsible decision on election day and science plays a vital role. In order for voters to be able to cast an informed ballot based on an issue like, say, climate change, they need the best possible scientific information about climate change. That's a large part of the reason we have public sector scientists in the first place: our taxes pay for their work and in return they, unlike scientists working for private corporations and institutions, are expected to owe their full loyalty to the Canadian people, to the evidence, and to the free-flow of scientific information.

Even Harper himself used to claim he believed in these principles. "Iron-fisted bully tactics have no place in a free and democratic society,” he once wrote. “Information is power. The less control the government has over the flow of information, the less control it can exert over its citizens... We cannot allow the government to dictate what information we can and cannot publish."

That was, of course, before he got elected. And even back then some people didn't believe him. Left-leaning academics and journalists have long accused Harper of having ideological ties to a political philosopher by the  name of Leo Strauss. Strauss, they claim, promoted the idea of the "noble lie" — the suggestion that leaders should intentionally mislead the public if they think it's for the greater good. Strauss and his students famously taught some of the Bush administration officials who orchestrated the PR campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Some say he has also influenced a group of professors (known as "The Calgary School") who taught Harper when he studied political science at the University of Calgary. Conservatives deny the link. They've argued that Strauss is misunderstood, and that he has no ties to the Calgary School. But in the end, the question of whether or not Harper's ideas come from Strauss is far less important than the question of what he has actually done in his time as Prime Minister.

The answer to that question is clear. As Prime Minister, Harper has become famous for tightly controlling his government's message and limiting the information available to the Canadian public. Science that doesn't echo his own beliefs is being shut down and the researchers behind that science are being fired en mass. A blunt message has been delivered to any scientist who does survive the cuts: they are now expected to owe their ultimate loyalty to the Prime Minister's Office, not to the evidence or to the Canadian public — anyone who openly disagrees with the Conservatives is putting their livelihood at risk. Knowledge that is supposed to be for the benefit of the Canadian people is now considered to be an extension of the official message, of public relations, of Harper's perpetual re-election campaign.

This is not the kind of thing we're used to seeing in this country. Canada has traditionally had one of the world's most robust democratic systems. But ever since his election, Harper has been steadily eroding the foundations of that system. His attacks on science have only been one front in his war on the free-flow of information — on the discussion, debate and dissent that fuels our democracy.

In the next post in this series, we'll take a look at one of the other key battlegrounds in Harper's War On Information: the civil service.


Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at

This post was originally conceived as a follow-up to a previous post: Rob Ford's War On Facts.


Anonymous said...

Its hard to believe Harper can do this under the noses of Canadians, who are by some standards very environmentally conscientious. Its a shame that nothing is being done to stop this (opposition this means the ball is in your court)

JJ! said...

Great article, Adam.

Apparently how one is supposed to cook frog's legs is not to shock the subject amphibians by plopping them into boiling water. They will react and try to jump out. Instead, you put them in lukewarm water then turn the element on. They will passively endure as the temperature gradually climbs.

Feeling like a froggy these days.

Anonymous said...

time to ley him to rest

ngwright said...

I don't think the PMO's media relations policies have done him any favours over the past few years, but tensions have been cooling lately.

You say that scientists are being muzzled and laid off if they don't tow the party line, but I think you're only framing this through a political lens.

A lot of people on the left do this. I get that you don't like him or his policies, but you need to contain the embellishment and see the whole picture. We have been underfunding research and development and losing scientists for years before Harper came to power, and that trend has continued. That is a major problem. Its more of a problem than a few reporters getting their call backs delayed (if i were a minister, i'd like some warning if one of my employees was about to contradict me in the press).

I'd love to see more of a voice for scientists in Canadian government and better funded research. Maybe we should try electing more scientists and fewer business people to parliament. That would be way more productive than piling on the hate Harper bandwagon

Craig. said...

Steven Harper is a great national shame and history will remember him as such.

radii said...

yes - do you have electronic voting in Canada? it's fixed a few elections here south of your border

Anonymous said...

Forget Rocco Magnotta. The great pyscho killer of Canada is the real life vampire Stephen Harper who sucked the life blood out of a once great country.
I left more than a decade ago. Fourty five per cent taxes to live in a fascist state that gives nothing back but way.

Anonymous said...

ngwright said "if i were a minister, i'd like some warning if one of my employees was about to contradict me in the press"

If you were a Minister I would hope what you say was based in science, not contradictory to it.

Anonymous said...



> "And shut down storage of vitally important, one-a-kind ice core samples."

> "...these environmental measures weren't going to be probably examined..."

...properly examined...

Anonymous said...

So you left when the liberals were in power and before harper started cutting taxes. And harper is to blame for your misery a decade ago 4 years before he was elected by Canadians.

Anonymous said...

Elected by Canadians? We'd know if he hadn't shut down the investigation into how true that statement may or may not be... Too much power has gone to this guy's head. Time to pull the plug.

Anonymous said...

I think this is absolutely horrible and we should vote for anyone but Harper but I really do want to see his "works cited" for this article.

Anonymous said...

Yes because spelling mistakes is really the biggest thing you need to remember from that article.

Anonymous said...

Click on some of the links attached to this article. Then read the accompanying stories from reputable news sources such as The National Post... Then scroll to the bottom and read some of the comments from properly informed Canadians. You might be surprised to learn that there are two sides to every story. Clearly this guy is just a Tory hater, nothing else.

Anonymous said...

nice analogy

Anonymous said...

Watching the House of Commons discussion on the passing of this bill and was outraged then.

This article outlines in perfect detail the result of electing such a man with an agenda.

Cuts are being made on services that are the very substance of our country, and the vast majority of our nation is unknowingly moving forward without realizing how backwards our government's mentality has reached.

The only good that will come of this is uproar from the public, which is inevitable. Harper may be able to put public media at a stand-still, but there is still the internet, having the ability to spread news like wildfire.

It is a shame that this bill exists. 400-sum pages of worthless policy change.

Anonymous said...

The fundamental point is that science flourishes when it is discussed in an open and public forum. That is science. The point that Adam Bush is a Tory hater is the argument of a six year old. Good God, idiot! By not allowing government scientists to discuss their work, pray tell, where is your two sides to every story? If you want to dispute points made in the article, show your work. Just the Post? Is this where a find a properly informed Canadian? Do they use the same logic that you do? I'm surprised you didn't tell people to read the Sun.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there are usually 2 sides to every argument. I sometimes feel that much of the difficulties that I have stem from the fact that I don't really trust the media either. They often seem to behave more like liars (woops lawyers) - they often seem to only present the side that they believe in, in an attempt to "win" over your mind - I seldom find jounalists taking a responsible position of presenting both sides.
Should Harper be muzzling scientists - absolutely not.
Should scientists present their findings in a responsible fashion - of course. The "Climatologists" at East Anglia University blackened the eye of science with their lies, deceit and half truths about CO2 emissions and global warming, without indicating that there could be other causes including a natural fluctuation in temperature.
In the above article:
Was there duplication across various departments that the government was trying to reduce?
Were some of these departments overstaffed? Did some departments or scientists have their own beliefs that clouded their judgements like those at East Anglia University.
None of this seems to have been investigated by the Journalist.
I also believe that something had to be done about the time frame required for the environmental overview process of major projects. To take 10 / 20 years is unrealistic and simply provides a way for those against a project (be their reasons valid or not) to delay it endlessly.
Perhaps its time to kill the attitude of "winning" at all costs and get on with resolving our problems in the best interest of Canadians.
The legal attitude that the best way to obtain justice is for each side to present only the arguments on behalf of your side (defence or prosecution) is the way to obtain justice doesn't seem to work that well in our judicial system and especially in the public arena.
We see lawyers hiding information (Homolka) or distorting it (look at the nice innocent pictures of Trayvan Williams as a 15 year old vs his present appearance) and being more concerned with winning vs justice - can't wait for Magnotta's trial.
In the public arena the media has an enormous advantage in swaying public opinion and if they don't take their responsibilities seriously of providing both sides, we have even more serious problems.

Anonymous said...

Two sides to every story? Do you really believe that about science? Then you've been sold the cheap bill of goods that enables creationism, the tobacco industry and climate change denials.

When it is about science, there is often one side with perhaps minor shading and nuance, or perhaps there are multiple sides. Rarely are there just TWO. So, my friend, get off your conservative babble you got from American Faux News. The media may not be perfect, but it is all we have standing between us and the tyranny of fascism.

Anonymous said...

Can you please change "toe" to "tow", it's driving me crazy :)

Anonymous said...

Twitter him out of his job. i am fed up with job cuts, wage cuts, pollution etc

PlasmaTesla said...

The environmentalists who write this garbage are such self-serving hypocrites. They talk about secret agenda's and "noble lies" when thats all that the green movement has ever done. They produce flawed self-serving research(like the greenhouse climate change myth) and then pat themselves on the back and give each other prizes because of their foolish lies(see: Al Gore, David Suzuki). Environmentalism is just a business, with the core of its leadership being opportunistic politicians who've simply seen a cause where manipulating minds is extremely easy. I rarely see any of them put their money where their mouth is, why doesnt some private environmental company fund these researches instead of our tax money. Why don't people who work in the oil business or in these mega corporations quit their jobs if they think its so "wrong". Harper is a freakin genius and hes at least making sure hes not funding this corrupt little machine. Good for him.

Anonymous said...

Actually the proper idiom IS "toe the line". It's driving you crazy because it's been used correctly? Check a dictionary of idioms. It's not about towing a boat. It originated with the sport of running or foot racing. You have to keep your feet behind the line until someone lets you "go". So toeing the line means not letting your foot go over the line (and getting disqualified or causing a false start). So the idiom refers to not straying past a defined boundary not pulling on a rope!

Anonymous said...

So sad that our government is more concerned with money and oil than developing and maintaining a wonderful, innovative, and safe country. The purpose of science is to do research, interpret the data, and pass it along so that more research and development can be done based on past discoveries. Selectively silencing their voices is clearly wrong, whether you are a fan of Harper or not.

Anonymous said...

PlasmaTesla: Referring to peer reviewed scientific research as a 'corrupt little machine' shows just what you know and understand about the topic: nothing. I would highly recommend you read a scientific journal, and if you are able to, ask a local college/university to sit in on a scientific research class so you understand what it is you are talking about.

Anonymous said...

this goof needs two behind the ear....

Anonymous said...

And who voted for this sick clown? Canadian voters! Wake up! At least here in Quebec we did our bit to try and get rid of him.

Anonymous said...

could someone remind me why we HAVE to be civilized when dealing with such individuals ???... *sigh.. this is getting old ....

John Potter said...

Thank you!

Adam Bunch said...

To John Porter and Anonymous June 8, 2012 4:12 PM: my sources are linked to in the body of the article, the underlined words.

Unknown said...

I think this is absolutely horrible and we should vote for anyone but Harper but I really do want to see his "works cited" for this article.

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