Kirsty Duncan
1,302,446 views • 13:55

Let me tell you about rock snot. Since 1992, Dr. Max Bothwell, a Government of Canada scientist, has been studying a type of algae that grows on rocks. Now, the very unscientific term for that algae is rock snot, because as you can imagine, it looks a lot like snot. But scientists also call it Didymosphenia geminata and for decades, this algae has been sliming up riverbeds around the world. The problem with this algae is that it is a threat to salmon, to trout and the river ecosystems it invades.

Now, it turns out Canada's Dr. Bothwell is actually a world expert in the field, so it was no surprise in 2014 when a reporter contacted Dr. Bothwell for a story on the algae. The problem was, Dr. Bothwell wasn't allowed to speak to the reporter, because the government of the day wouldn't let him. 110 pages of emails and 16 government communication experts stood in Dr. Bothwell's way. Why couldn't Dr. Bothwell speak? Well, we'll never know for sure, but Dr. Bothwell's research did suggest that climate change may have been responsible for the aggressive algae blooms.

But who the heck would want to stifle climate change information, right? Yes, you can laugh. It's a joke, because it is laughable.

We know that climate change is suppressed for all sorts of reasons. I saw it firsthand when I was a university professor. We see it when countries pull out of international climate agreements like the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accord, and we see it when industry fails to meet its emissions reduction targets.

But it's not just climate change information that's being stifled. So many other scientific issues are obscured by alternate facts, fake news and other forms of suppression. We've seen it in the United Kingdom, we've seen it in Russia, we've seen it in the United States and, until 2015, right here in Canada. In our modern technological age, when our very survival depends on discovery, innovation and science, it is critical, absolutely critical, that our scientists are free to undertake their work, free to collaborate with other scientists, free to speak to the media and free to speak to the public. Because after all, science is humanity's best effort at uncovering the truth about our world, about our very existence. Every new fact that is uncovered adds to the growing body of our collective knowledge. Scientists must be free to explore unconventional or controversial topics. They must be free to challenge the thinking of the day and they must be free to present uncomfortable or inconvenient truths, because that's how scientists push boundaries and pushing boundaries is, after all, what science is all about.

And here's another point: scientists must be free to fail, because even a failed hypothesis teaches us something. And the best way I can explain that is through one of my own adventures. But first I've got to take you back in time.

It's the early 1900s and Claire and Vera are roommates in southern Ontario. One evening during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic, the two attend a lecture together. The end of the evening, they head for home and for bed. In the morning, Claire calls up to Vera and says she's going out to breakfast. When she returns a short while later, Vera wasn't up. She pulls back the covers and makes the gruesome discovery. Vera was dead. When it comes to Spanish flu, those stories are common, of lightning speed deaths.

Well, I was a professor in my mid-20s when I first heard those shocking facts and the scientist in me wanted to know why and how. My curiosity would lead me to a frozen land and to lead an expedition to uncover the cause of the 1918 Spanish flu. I wanted to test our current drugs against one of history's deadliest diseases. I hoped we could make a flu vaccine that would be effective against the virus and mutation of it, should it ever return. And so I led a team, a research team, of 17 men from Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States to the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean. These islands are between Norway and the North Pole. We exhumed six bodies who had died of Spanish flu and were buried in the permafrost and we hoped the frozen ground would preserve the body and the virus.

Now, I know what you are all waiting for, that big scientific payoff. But my science story doesn't have that spectacular Hollywood ending. Most don't. Truth is, we didn't find the virus, but we did develop new techniques to safely exhume bodies that might contain virus. We did develop new techniques to safely remove tissue that might contain virus. And we developed new safety protocols to protect our research team and the nearby community. We made important contributions to science even though the contributions we made were not the ones originally intended. In science, attempts fail, results prove inconclusive and theories don't pan out. In science, research builds upon the work and knowledge of others, or by seeing further, by standing on the shoulders of giants, to paraphrase Newton. The point is, scientists must be free to choose what they want to explore, what they are passionate about and they must be free to report their findings.

You heard me say that respect for science started to improve in Canada in 2015. How did we get here? What lessons might we have to share? Well, it actually goes back to my time as a professor. I watched while agencies, governments and industries around the world suppressed information on climate change. It infuriated me. It kept me up at night. How could politicians twist scientific fact for partisan gain? So I did what anyone appalled by politics would do: I ran for office, and I won.


I thought I would use my new platform to talk about the importance of science. It quickly became a fight for the freedom of science. After all, I was a scientist, I came from the world under attack, and I had personally felt the outrage. I could be a voice for those who were being silenced. But I quickly learned that scientists were nervous, even afraid to talk to me.

One government scientist, a friend of mine, we'll call him McPherson, was concerned about the impact government policies were having on his research and the state of science deteriorating in Canada. He was so concerned, he wrote to me from his wife's email account because he was afraid a phone call could be traced. He wanted me to phone his wife's cell phone so that call couldn't be traced. I only wish I were kidding. It quickly brought what was happening in Canada into sharp focus for me. How could my friend of 20 years be that afraid to talk to me? So I did what I could at the time. I listened and I shared what I learned with my friend in Parliament, a man who was interested in all things environment, science, technology, innovation. And then the 2015 election rolled around and our party won. And we formed government. And that friend of mine is now the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau.


And he asked if I would serve as his Minister of Science. Together, with the rest of the government, we are working hard to restore science to its rightful place. I will never forget that day in December 2015 when I proudly stood in Parliament and proclaimed, "The war on science is now over."


And I have worked hard to back up those words with actions. We've had many successes. There's still more work to do, because we're building this culture shift. But we want our government scientists to talk to the media, talk to the public. It'll take time, but we are committed. After all, Canada is seen as a beacon for science internationally. And we want to send a message that you do not mess with something so fundamental, so precious, as science.

So, for Dr. Bothwell, for Claire and Vera, for McPherson and all those other voices, if you see that science is being stifled, suppressed or attacked, speak up. If you see that scientists are being silenced, speak up. We must hold our leaders to account. Whether that is by exercising our right to vote, whether it is by penning an op-ed in a newspaper or by starting a conversation on social media, it is our collective voice that will ensure the freedom of science. And after all, science is for everyone, and it will lead to a better, brighter, bolder future for us all.

Thank you.