Harper, Trump & Science a la Carte: A Warning From Canada

Stephen Harper and cat.
Stephen Harper and cats.

Canadian science writer Graham Templeton says the election of Donald Trump and a Republican controlled Congress threatens a repeat of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s nine-year war on science.

Though Americans might be surprised to hear it, Canada offers a good example of why there is a very real need to worry, and of how the coming anti-science administration could realistically affect all of national research. My home and native land has been a fair ways down the road America is just now preparing to travel and, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the endpoint is absolutely disastrous….

In 2006, Canada elected the Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper to the position of Prime Minister, and formed a new national government that would endure in some form until the end of 2015. During this time, the Harper Government carried out what has come to be widely known as the War on Science. The target wasn’t merely climate change research, but fisheries, forestry, air quality — anything with an environmental focus, it would appear. Perhaps it’s just a big coincidence, but these also seem to be the areas of science that most often produced findings contrary to the interests of Canada’s enormous mining and petroleum industries. They also produced recommendations contrary to the Harper government’s attempts to withdraw from international climate accords….

The government used a variety of methods to carry out its attacks on earth sciences experts and experiments. First, of course, there was the defunding of certain sorts of research, and the public questioning or demeaning of much of the rest. Thousands of scientists lost their jobs. Canada lost its importance within some international research collaborations, simply because it could no longer pitch in as effectively. Due to a deep dependence of government-supported grants, the campaign rippled outward to similar research at universities and private facilities. Scientific libraries were closed, and their contents simply destroyed or thrown in the trash.

But there was also a much more insidious mode of attack, in a project that would become known as “muzzling.” Muzzling was literally the practice of telling government researchers that they may not discuss their research, period. The stated goal was a more coherent, curated face for government research, leaving the media stuff to real media professionals and thus making sure that government communication is effective and efficient — and doesn’t that all sound nice?

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

This does sound disturbingly familiar. Trump has claimed that global warming was a hoax invented by the Chinese to destroy American industry. Trump now says he has an open mind on the subject. What that means given his tendency to flip flop is anybody’s guess.

Attitudes in Congress are no better.  Consider these claims made by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who is vice chairman of the House Science Committee.

Just so you know, global warming is a total fraud and it is being designed by—what you’ve got is you’ve got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives. That’s what the game plan is. It’s step by step by step, more and bigger control over our lives by higher levels of government. And global warming is that strategy in spades.… Our freedom to make our choices on transportation and everything else? No, that’s gotta be done by a government official who, by the way, probably comes from Nigeria because he’s a UN government official, not a US government official.

Pretty paranoid stuff, huh? But, it’s par for the course among Republicans in Washington.

The Republican members who control the House and Senate science committees deny global warming is a serious threat. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has run one-sided hearings that have included Canadian jazz musician and conservative pundit Mark Steyn — a man with no scientific expertise — as an expert witness. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), a leading candidate for NASA administrator, attacked  the Obama Administration’s spending over climate change using grossly misleading budget numbers.

Nobody’s saying that Trump and Congressional Republicans reject all science. There are clearly basic scientific tenants and theories they accept. But, with global warming and other issues that threaten the vested interests that support them, their acceptance of science is strictly a la carte.

It’s a worrisome time. The Trump Administration has promised to cut the budget for NASA Earth science research, with a particular focus on climate research. What is left is likely to be transferred to NOAA. Republicans say this will be a more efficient way to conduct the research and that it will “depoliticize” the science.

However, they’re not proposing these changes because they want healthy, well-funded programs to study the Earth and climate change. There are no indications that NASA is doing a poor job with Earth science research. Or that the current division of labor between NASA and NOAA is causing any serious problems. Earth science researchers are not advocating a transfer to NOAA, much less budget cuts, as a solution to some problems that exist.

The popular argument among Republicans is that shifting Earth science to NOAA will allow the space agency to focus on exploration is a red herring. The United States’ inability to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) for the past 44 years cannot be attributed to the agency’s study of the home planet. NASA can walk and chew gum at the same time. Gutting the Earth science program and moving it to another agency will not solve any of the problems that have left us stuck in LEO.

We’re an advanced technological society that increasingly relies upon scientific research for our well being.  Our national interest is not served by a government that is hostile to scientists, and that believes it can pick and choose what scientific results it does and doesn’t believe. I fear we could be going down the same path as Canada with the Trump Administration. It’s scary.