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The global attack on science

From political leaders who deny the effects of climate change to Big Energy’s funding of university research, scientists across the world are facing severe funding cuts, harassment and pressure from vested interests

The natural sciences are under attack around the world. From political appointees who deny the climate-changing effects of polluting industries to the corporate funding of anti-science research, highly qualified experts are now facing severe funding cuts, harassment and pressure from vested interests. 

Our reporters looked at five examples of countries where the scientific community is being targeted. Their examples include government cutbacks in Mexico and corporate pressure in the United States. In Denmark, we found a scientific community outraged by a recent parliamentary motion condemning “excessive activism in certain research environments.” 

The outlook appears similarly bleak elsewhere. Under President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has become an increasingly hostile place for environmentalists and epidemiologists, while climate scientists and conservation experts in Australia say they are routinely prevented from raising straightforward ecological facts to the public and government.

Mexico 

By Erica Hellerstein

In February 2019, seven months after the populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador won Mexico’s presidency in a landslide victory, he made an offhand remark that foreshadowed what would later become a contentious relationship with the country’s scientific community. Fielding press conference questions as to whether three officials newly appointed to the country’s main science funding agency were suitably qualified for their positions, López Obrador complained about a “science mafia” with “very high salaries” that sought to derail the new hires.

Since then, López Obrador’s relationship with Mexico’s scientists has nosedived, with the president repeatedly characterizing them as elite and corrupt.

Science agencies in the country have seen two main rounds of funding cuts since López Obrador took office. In May 2019, he announced steep budget reductions to the country’s federally funded laboratories. He did so on the premise of reining in public servants’ use of government funds to support “unnecessary” international travel — a move the president of the Mexican Academy of Sciences described as contributing to a “general atmosphere of pessimism” within the country’s science and research field. 

The following year, López Obrador’s Morena party voted to defund over 100 wide-ranging public trusts that finance everything from the arts to disaster relief, including about 30 that support scientific research. The president also imposed additional budget cuts on Conacyt, the country’s federal science funding agency. When scientists pushed back, he doubled down on vague allegations of corruption among researchers, alleging “abuses” at the organization. 

Conacyt has since found itself mired in controversy. Science Magazine reported that, in February 2021, researchers erupted in anger after the organization’s head floated a draft bill that they believed would limit academic freedom by allowing the agency to prioritize research that “addresses national problems ‘according to the state agenda.”’ 

Meanwhile, in the latest twist, 145 researchers have filed suit against Conacyt for wrongful termination. The litigation alleges that the agency stopped paying researchers, coerced them into signing resignations or terminated them without reasonable explanation. 

The cuts have had a material impact on Fabián Rosales Ortega, an astronomer at Mexico’s National Institute for Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics. He expects that he will have to close the small lab he heads at the institute within the year. 

The government’s hostility towards scientists was on full display in its coronavirus response, said Rosales Ortega. López Obrador downplayed the pandemic, refused to wear a mask publicly and contracted Covid-19 in January. Mexico has struggled to contain the epidemic, with a soaring caseload and one of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rates. 

“We had many experts in epidemiology who were eager to contribute and the government didn’t pay attention,” Rosales Ortega said. “They didn’t take into consideration the voice of scientists.”

Denmark

By Mariam Kiparoidze 

Relations between politicians and academics in Denmark have long been strained over fears that global political discourse is influencing the country’s research communities. On June 1, the already heated atmosphere reached boiling point, when the nation’s parliament passed a motion condemning “excessive activism in certain research environments.”

The full text of the proposal, which was supported by Denmark’s governing Social Democrats and a number of right wing and libertarian parties, states that the parliament expects university leaders to ensure proper self-regulation of scientific practices within their institutions, meaning “that there should be no standardization of research in order to produce politics disguised as science.” 

The intensifying charge against activism within academic circles has been led by two MPs: Henrik Dahl of the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party and Morten Messerschmidt of the Liberal Alliance. Both argue that Denmark’s higher education system is being overrun by identitarian political theories imported from the United States. 

The motion has provoked a storm of criticism. On June 2, university rectors issued a joint statement in protest. Meanwhile, an open letter in opposition to the resolution, published on the same day, has been signed by over 3,600 researchers. 

Academics who have signed the letter fear that the motion is the culmination of a years-long political campaign against fields of study including gender, migration and race. The open letter states that academic studies are evaluated through specific mechanisms, such as peer-review processes and external expert panel evaluations. “Politicians would do well to trust this system. The alternative is — in effect — political censorship of academic freedom,” it reads.

Fernando Racimo, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen’s GeoGenetics Center and a signatory to the letter, does not see science and activism as separate issues. “Science often serves to inform activism and activism often serves to amplify scientific findings, particularly when politicians choose to ignore these findings,” he wrote in an emailed response to questions for this article.

The passing of the motion underlines the severity of the attacks on academic freedom in Denmark. In 2017, the peer-reviewed journal Policy Reviews in Higher Education published a study measuring academic freedom in the 28 European Union member states. Denmark ranked 24th.

“When politicians try to meddle in this system to suit their needs, they risk introducing political censorship into our universities and institutions of learning,” said Racimo. “This, in turn, decreases our capacity to bring in talented researchers from abroad, attract international funding and develop cooperation with labs across the world.”

US 

By Mary Steffenhagen

Money from the fossil fuels industry has flooded into U.S. universities for decades. This flow of funding has served to ensure that corporate interests are reflected in a number of scientific fields, including climate change and conservation.

Stanford University’s Global Climate and Energy Project was founded in 2003 with $100 million from ExxonMobil. MIT’s Energy Institute was established in 2006 by Shell, ExxonMobil and Eni, and continues to be sustained by companies including Chevron and GE. Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute spent over $3.6 million from 2006-2017 on donations to institutions such as the University of Connecticut, the University of California — Davis and the University of Colorado — Boulder. 

Dr. Anthony Ladd, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina — Greensboro, has tracked the influence of corporate funding in the natural sciences since the 1980s. “People think, well, they’re just being benefactors, they’re getting a tax break for it, but they’re just being good community partners,” he said. “And that’s exactly the message that the companies want. But their primary function is to pave the way for their economic interests to be maximized.”

Such funding has had a stark effect on academic transparency. Take, for example, the firing of a well-regarded scientist at the University of Colorado — Boulder. Dr. Detlev Helmig, an atmospheric chemist of 25 years has documented the links between the fossil fuels industry and the region’s worsening air quality. Helmig was abruptly fired in May 2020, the institution citing improper use of public funds and claiming that he had compromised his “professional loyalty to the university.” Subsequent reporting found errors in the university’s case against him.

Helmig’s dismissal took place during a fracking boom in Colorado. By 2018, the state had surpassed Alaska, California and Wyoming to become the country’s fifth-largest oil producer. According to InsideClimateNews, Helmig’s peer-reviewed research was frequently cited by Colorado politicians and regulators as they worked to regulate emissions in the area. The university has previously accepted donations from the American Petroleum Institute. In 2015, the university’s School of Business was found to have published pro-fracking studies that were “conceived, funded and edited” by the organization.

In an emailed statement to Coda Story, the University of Colorado — Boulder said, “We addressed this matter with the utmost seriousness and did not make a decision without full and fair consideration of the facts. The decision to part ways was not driven by anyone or any entity placing pressure on the university.” 

Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, works with academics and researchers who may be vulnerable to pressures from fossil-fuel-funded entities. “We are increasingly seeing scientists get targeted because they get involved in science advocacy, even very nonpartisan advocacy,” she said. “The people who have put their names and faces out there, it has been ugly for them sometimes.”

Australia 

By Isobel Cockerell

According to a recent study, Australia’s climate scientists and conservation experts are routinely prevented from conveying to the public or decision-makers — including government ministers — scientific evidence of threats to the environment. In September 2020, the journal of the U.S.-based Society for Conservation Biology published a survey in which 220 Australian ecologists, scientists, policy makers and environmental consultants were interviewed. More than half of the respondents said that they had been prohibited from communicating scientific information about environmental damage. 

Government workers described being constrained by senior management and workplace policy to flag damaging industrial processes that harm protected species, “especially if the government is doing little to mitigate the threat.” “In this way, the public often remains in the dark about the true state and trends of many species,” said one.

The survey’s respondents reported that they were being gagged when it came to making public statements on climate change. Scientists described how they self-censored information on threatened species, mining, logging, and other environmental threats, fearing that they would compromise their careers, lose funding or risk misrepresentation in the media. The researchers conducting the survey referred to an “information blackout” and “science suppression.” 

While the report raised awareness of the problem in Australia, Don Driscoll, one of its authors, said that it also highlighted the power of the anti-science movement “There is much work to do, and many powerful vested interests push hard to retain the right to gag scientists,” he said. “Governments and powerful industries have a strong interest in controlling the story. You can’t change that overnight.” 

He added that the pandemic had ushered in a shift in rhetoric towards decision-making based on proven science, but that the new-found trust of conservative leaders in empirical research had not yet been extended towards managing biodiversity. 

Australia has a strong track record of climate change denial from leading politicians. In 2009, Tony Abbott, the country’s prime minister from 2013 to 2015, dismissed climate science as “absolute crap.” In 2017, while delivering a lecture to the skeptical London-based Global Warming Policy Foundation, Abbot said climate change was “probably doing more good than harm.” 

In September 2019, Australia’s minister for drought and natural disasters, David Littleproud, said he didn’t “know if climate change is manmade,” before retracting his comment. When bushfires began to ravage many parts of the country in 2019, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that there was no evidence linking them to climate change. As the disaster intensified in early 2020, MP Craig Kelly, of the center-right Liberal Party of Australia, said it was “complete nonsense” to claim that the blazes had anything to do with increased carbon emissions. He later described climate advocates as “cultish,” “brainwashed” and “lefty trolls.” 

Brazil

By Caitlin Thompson

In March, following nearly two years of abuse and threats, Larissa Mies Bombardi, a lecturer in geography at the University of Sao Paulo, fled the country. The attacks, many of which were made anonymously online, began in the spring of 2019 shortly after she published a nationwide study that found that a person dies every two-and-a-half days in Brazil from exposure to toxic agricultural chemicals. It also stated that as many as 17,000 babies from zero to 12 months could have been poisoned between 2007 and 2014. 

Bombardi’s colleagues had instructed her to change her routines to avoid possible physical attacks from influential voices in the agricultural industry, Bolsonaro supporters and anonymous trolls. She planned to leave Brazil in March 2020, but was prevented by the pandemic. Her house was broken into by thieves and her laptop stolen in August 2020. Eventually, she was forced to seek exile in Belgium. She is not alone. Under Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, the country has become an increasingly hostile place for researchers and academics, particularly environmentalists and epidemiologists. 

“The climate of intimidation is growing,” said Conrado Hübner Mendes, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Sao Paulo. 

Ever since he took office in 2019, Bolsonaro has repeatedly undermined scientific expertise on matters ranging from climate change to the coronavirus. Shortly after Bolsonaro came into power, Ricardo Galvão was fired from his post as the director of the National Institute for Space Research, which monitors the Amazon, because he released satellite data showing the scale of deforestation. Since March 2020, Bolsonaro has fired three health ministers, referred to Covid-19 as “a little flu,” and claimed that coronavirus vaccines could turn people into crocodiles.

Hübner Mendes believes the president’s actions have empowered his supporters to harass and threaten scientists on social media.

Scientific study is in dire straits in Brazil, as research institutions and universities struggle with an ongoing budget crisis and increasing governmental control. Soon after taking the presidency, Bolsonaro slashed funding for the Ministry of Education by 25% and cut the budget for the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications almost in half. He has also attempted to exert control over appointments to leadership positions at universities, but his efforts were overturned by Congress in June of last year. 

Attacks on scientists have escalated during the pandemic. In February 2021, the Ministry of Education ordered federal universities to “prevent and punish political-partisan acts” by employees. The government department called on university chancellors to ensure that their resources, campuses and websites are not used to promote political events, protests or demonstrations. It referred to such occurrences as acts of “administrative immorality.” 

The order was later withdrawn, but academics have faced serious consequences for speaking out against the government. In February, two lecturers at the Federal University of Pelotas in southern Brazil — including former chancellor Pedro Curi Hallal — were charged for publicly criticizing Bolsonaro’s response to Covid-19. In order to stop judicial proceedings, they signed a two-year order agreeing to refrain from “expressions of disrespect.” 

Hallal has remained outspoken against the president, but for many, intimidation is increasing self-censorship, said Hübner Mendes. In April, a group of Brazilian researchers chose not to add their names to a white paper published by the Climate Social Science Network housed at Brown University, detailing Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine environmental protections, for fear of retribution.

The point of the intimidation is to create an atmosphere hostile to discussion of important scientific issues, said Hübner Mendes. “People who are watching those who are suffering intimidation, they might choose not to speak up,” he added.

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