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U.S. scientists call Canada for help with government clampdown

Canadian government scientists muzzled under Stephen Harper give advice.
A man dressed as Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2nd R) poses after placing gags on fellow protesters dressed as a backbench Member of Parliament (L), a librarian (2nd L) and a scientist during a demonstration against the muzzling of MPs and federal government employees in Ottawa April 18, 2013. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

It's been a chaotic first week for U.S. government scientists under the new Trump administration. The White House imposed a communications freeze - in one form or another - on a number of departments including the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some of those gag orders have since been rescinded and are being reviewed.

For some Canadian scientists, this sounds very similar to the fight they had for years with the government of Stephen Harper.

Dr. Katie Gibbs is a biologist and executive director of Evidence for Democracy. This week, her group has been slammed with calls from U.S. scientists looking for help.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bob McDonald: What you've been hearing from U.S. scientists this week?

Dr. Katie Gibbs: They've been contacting us saying that they really see the similarities with the battle we fought for science under the Harper government with what they're seeing now. So they're looking for advice on what to do and how to organize against it. And we have been in touch with a number of the organizers there, particularly the organizers of the large march for science that's happening in Washington. They've said that part of the reason they're organizing so quickly now is that they have seen what happened in Canada.

BM: How concerned are the U.S. scientists?

KG: They're very concerned, but I've been amazed at the resistance we've seen already. There's the march being organized. There's an initiative underway called the 314 Action that's urging scientists to start running for office at different levels of government. Just before I came here, I saw an initiative started by some academic scientists who are putting out a letter of support for their government colleagues. They've also created a website where government scientists can send data and information that might be censored and they'll facilitate getting that information out to the public.

Bob MacDonald: What are they afraid of losing?Dr. Katie Gibbs: They're afraid of actually losing data. We did see that happen here under the Harper government. There were actual dumpsters full of books and data sets. Once you lose that kind of information, you might never get it back. This is research that is paid for by taxpayer dollars. The public has a right to be informed about it.

BM: What advice are you giving these U.S. scientists about how to deal with the situation that they're now facing?

KG: I think it's important to really remember that the struggle is going to be hardest for the government scientists. They have to make some important decisions like, do they keep their head down and keep their jobs and do what they're told? Or do they follow their principles and go rogue like we've seen with some of the Twitter accounts.

BM: Given what Canada went through, what advice are you giving them in terms of getting scientific papers out?

KG: Well one really practical thing we saw happen in Canada under the Harper years was government scientists taking their name off of publications. Often government scientists collaborate with academic researchers on publications. Normally the publication would have all of those authors listed. And unfortunately for the government scientists, often what they had to do is take their names off the paper, so it could get out there and get published. It's unfortunate that they no longer would have that as a publication for themselves, but at least the information gets out to the public. 

BM: May common sense prevail.

KG: Hopefully.