By Deborah McDermott
Seacoast Online news story
This is a troubling time to be a climate scientist, say professors from the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine. It is a time of unease and uncertainty, they say, as the Trump administration signals research, data collection and scientific inquiry could be under attack.
They point to what they see as any number of concerning signs: the confirmation of former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which he sued more than a dozen times over its environmental regulations; efforts, subsequently rescinded, to require Department of Energy scientists to reveal the names of colleagues working on climate change research; a Jan. 24 administration order temporarily suspending the award of new EPA contracts or grants; and comments made by the president in the past that climate change is a “hoax.”
An atmosphere of uncertainty over future research comes at a time when competitive federal funding is already stagnant, said Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor of paleoecology and conservation biogeography at the University of Maine. Gill is emerging as a regional and potentially national voice of the science community as people around the country begin to band together to present a unified voice for climate science.
“We’re already underfunding science in this country,” said Gill, who is a faculty member of the UMaine Climate Change Institute. “There’s much more demand than there is money. Labs are being shut down because scientists can’t fund their research. Some scientists are going to other countries because there’s more science funding. That’s been true while we had an administration that was more friendly to science. Now, there’s a concern across the board that what was already a tough time is about to become a dire situation.”
The concern is much broader than one university’s federal funds drying up, or one research project going away, said Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. These various signs point to a potential shift away from using empirical research when making policy decisions, he said.
“We were just getting to the point where the public was beginning to understand the impact on the planet from climate change,” Mayewski said. “My biggest concern is not about whether we get federal funding in the future. My concern is the flow of data to the public from federal agencies. When I hear that policy decisions could be made on ideology rather than fact, I am very nervous.”
Cameron Wake, UNH professor of climatology and glaciology, said there is broad concern about the apparent lack of interest in science as a basis for decision making in the new administration.
“Here’s Scott Pruitt saying, ‘We really don’t know what is changing the climate system,'” Wake said. “The science we generate should be part of the discussion, but the administration doesn’t appear to value the science and data and facts.”
As universities adjust to potential changes under the new administration, the concern about loss of federal grant funding is real and pervasive — although it’s still too early to tell what if any fallout there might be, said Jan Nisbet, senior vice provost for research at UNH.
“We don’t know the impact, to be honest, but all the signs are not good,” she said.
UNH annually receives $51 million in federal awards across all disciplines, but a significant portion of that is in the sciences. And for a reason, she said. UNH is one of the preeminent universities in the country in the environmental sciences, consistently in the top 10 nationwide.
“If that’s going to be the target area (for the Trump administration), that could have a disproportionate affect on us,” Nisbet said.
Gill at UMaine said many people don’t know that any grant researchers receive is shared with the university — in UMaine’s case nearly a 50/50 split. “As state funding has declined, universities are counting on those grant dollars just to keep the lights on, so to speak.”
Nisbet said there are 64 research faculty whose salaries are based entirely on research funding. “There’s no doubt there’s anxiety among that group.”
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Gill said she has a colleague at UMaine who is funded entirely by the EPA to test lakes throughout Maine for safe drinking water. “Think of what that could mean to the people of Maine if her position is no longer funded,” she said.
That’s just one example, said Mayewski, of the impact cuts to science.
“The EPA has done a remarkable job of monitoring changes in the air quality, water quality, changes in ecosystems,” he said. “What’s terrifying to me is the implication that EPA data that is directly related to our health — such as cancer, respiratory diseases, Lyme disease-carrying ticks in Maine due to warming temperatures — will not be made available. If we’re starting to go toward a world where what someone believes overshadows scientific information, we’re in a dangerous situation.”
Scientists are not waiting to find out whether their data will be compromised. Even before the president took office, efforts by groups such as DataRefuge and the Environmental Data began to download data onto nonfederal databases. “Hackathons” have cropped up — including one this month at the University of California at Berkeley, where the group Governance Initiative worked to collect data from NASA’s earth sciences programs and from the Department of Energy.
“In all, there’s a lot of activity going on to ensure that government information on government servers does not get altered, deleted or lost during the transition between administrations,” said Hannah Hamalainen, geospatial and earth sciences librarian at UNH. “These are all national efforts that don’t address the elephant in the room: What’s going to happen when that data are no longer being created? And the implications for democracy, data-based economic decision-making, etc.?”
So what is a scientist to do?
Gill has chosen to spend her efforts in the public arena, one of a growing number of scientists banding together to voice their concerns. She has already been to a climate march in Boston, and was among the first scientists in the nation to call for a national March for Science on April 22 in Washington, D.C. She has since been featured in The New York Times, Boston Globe and on National Public Radio.
She was also tapped to consider a run for elective office by 314 Action, a new organization formed to give scientists a greater voice in the public policy arena.
“We have to be outspoken,” she said. “We need a seat at the table. The question for me is, What is the level at which I can make a difference? Can I be more useful standing up for research as an academic researcher or should I become more directly involved in the political process? Many of us have always had to be political. As women scientists or scientists of color, being political isn’t new. But this moment is new. And it feels like it’s really taking off.”
Wake applauds the trend toward scientists’ involvement in the political process. “Without scientists, people can get away with ignoring science.”
But he said, “I am not frantic.” Science has already made a huge contribution toward a clean-energy future, and he’s convinced that market is not going to turn around now. He points to a January report from the U.S. Department of Energy that solar power employs twice as many people as coal, gas and oil generation combined.
“That’s where the future is,” he said of clean power. “The economy has already made the transition. The notion that a president or a congress can insist we burn coal again is ridiculous. The market has chosen natural gas as a bridge until we can transition completely to a renewable energy system. This administration can slow things down but it can’t stop the trend.”
Meanwhile, he is focusing his political energy at the local and state level, working with communities and the state of New Hampshire to address planning, adaptation and mitigation issues surrounding sea level rise. “At the local level, people understand the risk and the need to do something about it,” he said, “and the federal politicians be damned.”