Should I stay, or should I go: is U.S. facing a climate scientist brain drain? – Mongabay

U.S. climate researchers, facing an uncertain future under a presidential administration known for its hostility to science, had a potential way out: answer a few questions on a website run by the French government, draw up a project proposal, and then maybe get offered a position at a French university, supported by enough cash for the duration of a stay there. The scientist’s spouse, could come too, and work if they pleased. A lucrative and attractive deal that has yielded a strong response.

After President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in June, France’s Emmanuel Macron responded with a clarion call to “Make Our Planet Great Again.” He aimed part of that message directly at U.S. climate scientists with a sales pitch inviting them to avoid draconian U.S. budget cuts and hostile Trumpian rhetoric by seeking haven in France.

This wasn’t hype: the French government was serious and has since set aside 30 million euros to facilitate the immigrants.

The program closed several months ago having netted a couple of hundred applications, with hundreds more researchers requesting additional information. Among the 255 submissions, 45 percent were from Americans, and 55 percent were from scientists working in the U.S. A sister project in Germany, with 15 million Euros in funding, received 287 applications from 40 countries, with scientists, both Americans and foreign nationals, residing in the U.S. making up most of the applications, according to the organizers.

Since Trump’s election, talk of a U.S. scientific brain drain has been rife, especially among climate researchers whose funding was earmarked for cuts by the President’s so-called “skinny budget” released in March. At the time of writing, the depth of funding cuts to NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration), the NSF (National Science Foundation) and NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), especially to climate programs, were still being debated, though indications are that the worst cuts to science program will be rejected by Congress.

To assess the impacts of the French and German employment offers, sought out climate scientists to sound out their views, and to see who among them is staying and who is going.

A sensitive situation

Ashley Ballantyne, an associate professor of bioclimatology at the University of Montana, applied to France’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” program. He says he doesn’t feel he was pushed, but rather pulled by the opportunity it presents: “I have found it challenging in recent years to keep research supported here in the United States; I don’t think that’s by design, I think it’s just very competitive.” Moving to France would be an opportunity to broaden his research networks he says, but also to expand on the work he is already doing with French colleagues.

But Ballantyne hints at another, larger issue: “I think there’s a big discussion about open societies and how that really fosters science… right now, I do get a sense that Europe is more of an open society.” If his view is typical, then it is not only a negative shift in the funding landscape that scientists are concerned about in the U.S., but also a change in the political and social climate, and in a growing lack of transparency.

“I think that Trump has poured gasoline onto the fire of anti-intellectualism and anti-science,” says Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund. Her organization assists scientists who face legal action or harassment during the course of their work. In past years, Kurtz says her team has helped around 20 to 30 scientists per year with varying degrees of legal advice or council; this year, however, under Trump they are on course to double that number.

According to Kurtz, climate scientists within the government are being told by the administration that they can’t communicate about climate science, and that they can’t use the words “climate science” in grant proposals. Still others have been shifted out of their positions and demoted to menial jobs. “Basically, they are under an immense amount of scrutiny,” Kurtz concludes.

One climate scientist interviewed for this story applied to the French initiative but requested to remain anonymous, out of fear of retribution: “I think you are going to be pretty hard-pressed to find scientists willing to speak out against the [Trump] administration, because we are all publicly funded. Putting a name on something that’s against the administration is probably not a super great move for careers.”

Some researchers’ fears relate not to Trump’s science policies but his immigration policies.

Murray Rudd, a Canadian and an associate professor at the University of Emory, is due to begin working at a university in Sweden; a job he applied for on the day after Trump’s election. He was prompted to look abroad by uncertainty over his immigration status: “My main driving concern initially was this possible risk of not being able to work in the country,” he says. Other concerns, such as cuts in research funding, were secondary.

His job at Emory was one that he’d expected to hold for years and until he retired. But since submitting his application, he says he has no regrets. “There’s nothing that sort of alleviated my concerns along the way,” he explains. “Actually, my concerns on the immigration front became more acute over time… I’m from Canada and [that] is probably as secure as I could get.”

Between a rock and the White House

Researchers just setting out on their careers are particularly concerned about the Trump administration’s open hostility to science. Early career scientists have never had it easy, and may find some solace in the fact that others elsewhere are struggling to find full-time positions. “Global figures are hard to come by, but only three or four in every hundred PhD students in the United Kingdom will land a permanent staff position at a university. It’s only a little better in the United States.” So reads a recent editorial in the journal Nature.

“I wouldn’t expect many climate scientists to just abandon their profession because the career prospects are worse now,” says Alex Rezovsky, a research scientist at Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et l’Environnement in France. Rezovsky moved abroad well before Trump’s election and says his motivation was simple: he was simply looking for work wherever he could find it. “[N]one of us started [out on] this sort of career path in the first place thinking it was going to be easy to find a permanent position.”

Michael Diamond, a graduate student studying atmospheric science at the University of Washington is likewise concerned about bleak U.S. job prospects: “The availability of federal funding and job opportunities, or lack thereof, is an important consideration for what to do with my career,” he says. “I think this would be important even in a different political climate, but especially given current U.S. policy, many early career scientists I know are becoming more interested in private sector careers.”

Like other scientists interviewed for this story, Diamond says he would consider opportunities abroad to carry out post-doctoral research, but wouldn’t want to make it a permanent move.

In a sense, this is nothing new, with past U.S. administrations slowly tightening the screws on science funding over the decades since the big science boom of the 1960s launched by President John F. Kennedy. A 2013 study entitled Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity, found that nearly 20 percent of scientists in the U.S. were considering a move abroad due to increasing financial restrictions around funding. As federal purse strings have tightened, with grants getting smaller, less available and more competitive, young scientists have looked away from academia, and more and more to the private sector, or abroad.

“I have seen top, especially young, scientists going to Europe to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by well-funded scientific programs,” says Mark Urban, associate professor at the University of Connecticut, whose lab is trying to understand biotic responses to climate change. Those who left did so before Trump’s election, Urban states.

“I have noticed a mass exodus to industry among my peers. Many are also considering careers abroad,” reveals Tripti Bhattacharya, a post-doctoral research associate in the department of geosciences at the University of Arizona. Like Urban, she says this “exodus,” began before the Trump administration and is tied mostly to funding – though clearly, Trump seems to be accelerating the exodus.

Bhattacharya, due to her own concerns over future funding possibilities, has applied for positions in the U.K. and Canada. But like Rudd, it’s a move she is reluctant to make: “Ideally, I would be able to stay in the U.S. in a funding system I am familiar with. However, circumstances may not favor that.”

“Funding is already highly competitive, and if budgets get slashed or programs get eliminated, it will be even harder,” adds Jennifer Hertzberg, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Connecticut, whose area of expertise is foraminifera — tiny, ocean-dwelling plankton that grow shells and yield insights into past climatic shifts. “I am applying for academic jobs overseas that are permanent, and if I were offered a position, I would seriously consider leaving the States.”

Staying put

While a general sense of malaise over future funding, and real concern over increased political repression is impacting U.S. climate scientists, most are not brushing up on their French or German just yet. For many, very little has changed so far. So they have a wait and see attitude. Others are considering alternative ways to continue their research, whether by sourcing funds differently or by working under a different brand.

“We need to know how the climate will react to the levels of CO2 and greenhouse gases that we are putting into the atmosphere, and I think that work will continue to be important,” states Gijs de Boer at the University of Colorado. For him, very little has changed to date. He has too many other things to worry about at present, he says, to ponder the outcome of federal budget proposals and what may, or may not, come to pass.

Matthew Shupe, a research scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, described Trump’s initial budget proposal, his skinny budget, as “laughable,” adding that “he called out pretty much every program that funds me for these major cuts… So, I would be pretty adversely affected if that budget were to pass.” But he’s sitting tight to see which of those cuts, if any, appear in Congress’ final 2018 budget, due in December.

Shupe sees a move abroad as “something to consider down the line,” but isn’t planning on it anytime soon. Rather he believes that a funding cut would probably cause him to try to repackage his science, before packing his bags. “There’s a fine line between weather and climate… In principle I could make some subtle adjustments, and [then] the work I do could be packaged in terms of weather prediction.”

Trumpian adversity has resulted in many others not fleeing their country, but deciding instead to stand up and speak out in defense of American science. “I don’t know of anybody that has directly said ‘I’m out of here’,” says Sarah Myhre, a research associate focusing on oceanography at the University of Washington. To her and her colleagues, at least, the message from the French President was perhaps more important than the offer.

“We did applaud that, it was delightful, and it was encouraging to see,” she says. “I think that [it] registered across our whole community that there was this international rallying behind the workers and intellectuals that are trying to do this basic science.”

Myhre’s immediate visceral response was to speak up for science more actively and loudly. “It actually is my job to stay and get engaged in the political process,” she says. And she is not alone. Others say that recent attacks on science by the administration have only made them more aware of the need to act as vocal science ambassadors to the public.

Jonathan Sanderman, a biogeochemist at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts focusing on how soil carbon and nutrient cycles are impacted by climate change, saw Macron’s invitation as a symbolic gesture, similar to Governor Jerry Brown’s promise that California would “launch its own damn satellites.”

Brenda Ekwurzel, chief climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, describes an altogether different brain drain: the flow from federal agencies to other sectors, be that industry jobs or positions with NGOs, which she describes as a lateral move. “Most of all, people, I think, are staying and trying to do the best they can. I do know of individuals who have [left], but they are very rare in scores and scores of people I’ve talked to since November 2016.”

Rudd, however, believes that it’s only a matter of time before others pack their bags and head for the departure gates. “For your article you might be a little early,” he guesses, stressing that recruitment processes in the academic world can take time to run their course. “You are probably just catching the first few people who are going in that direction… Every time there’s uncertainty that’s going to get people considering other options.” Indeed, this is a story Mongabay may revisit in a year’s time.

Is a brain drain all that bad?

“I think that they are fantastic!” Cassidy Sugimoto exclaims, referring to the French and German ‘Make Our Planet Great Again’ initiatives. The recent research by this associate professor of informatics at Indiana University suggests that open societies favor science, particularly when scientists can move freely. And research programs like those now being offered up in Europe can only enhance this movement.

Rather than referring to “brain drains” and one-way exits, Sugimoto speaks of “brain circulation’,” a revolving door that allows a steady flow of international researchers in and out of countries. She fears that Trump’s antagonism toward science may act as a wedge that stops that revolving door from spinning, and scientists from mixing internationally: “The isolationist actions of the U.S. government right now have created a chilling environment for science, and a very hostile environment for academic work,” Sugimoto says.

“Personally, I’m not going to uproot my family from here to France,” Sanderman says, adding wryly: “But if they give me a million and half euros to start a program that seems tempting….”

Urban adds, “Given the dwindling budgets for research that began even before the change in administration, I continue to look outside the federal grant programs for alternative and perhaps more sustainable forms of funding,” But Urban also insists that he is doggedly committed to his work, no matter what happens: “Even if I lost all funding, I would continue doing what I could with boots and a data notebook.” This dogged determination to stick with scientific and climate careers, no matter what, was universal with everyone interviewed for this story.

For now, she is especially concerned about barriers created to scientists wishing to enter the U.S., including the so-called “Muslim ban” which could block or dissuade foreign scholars from entering the country. Some of America’s greatest scientists and environmentalists, ranging from Albert Einstein to John Muir, or Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar to Chien-Shiung Wu, were immigrants. Also, one has to wonder how the outcome of World War II might have been altered if the U.S. had ejected Einstein and other émigré physicists who worked in the defense industry and on the Manhattan Project.

According to Sugimoto, scientists entering a country tend to be more productive and produce higher impact work. “We have a huge amount of foreign-born and foreign-educated scholars who come into the United States… They make up the majority of our Nobel Prize winners, of our other elite prestigious prizes, they write the most high-impact work, they’re published in our journals.”

She points to drops in international applications at U.S. universities across the board, up to 30 percent in some cases since Trump’s election. “To lose that pool of high quality scholars will dramatically affect the context in which science is done in the U.S.”

According to a recent snapshot of 522 colleges and universities taken this fall by the Institute of International Education (IIE), international applications decreased by an average of seven percent this year, with around half of the institutions surveyed reporting declines. Half of the institutions also expressed concern that the social and political climate in the U.S. may be acting as a “potential deterrent” to applicants, while one-fifth reported that some international students were considering leaving the U.S. or had done so already. The IIE’s president told the Washington Post that it’s too early to say whether this is all related to Trump’s policies.

It’s not surprising, to Sugimoto, then, that countries like France, Germany, Canada and China are picking up the slack and trying to recruit U.S. talent. According to a report by the Japan Technology and Science Agency, China is already outpacing the U.S. in four out of eight scientific fields. China is now top in computer science, mathematics, materials science and engineering. The U.S. still leads in physics, environmental and earth sciences, basic life science and clinical medicine – for now.

This so called “Trump Effect” bodes ill for the U.S.’s long held position as a global science leader. But it could also bode well for the global pursuit of science, as scientists are prompted to move between countries, generating a sort of cross-pollination of knowledge.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s proposed 2018 budget cuts will survive in Congress. However, experts point out that the administration still has at least three more annual budgets ahead of it, and none of those seems likely to see increases in scientific research. Still, for the moment, while some climate scientists contemplate opportunities outside the U.S., most are not keen to leave.

In response to the administration’s attacks on science, some are hunkering down, battening the hatches and hoping the political weather improves. Others are speaking out more loudly than ever to defend the scientific method ­– the vast turnout for last spring’s March for Science in Washington demonstrates that resistance to the Trump administration remains strong, and could be building.

One important caveat: while the majority of climate scientists that Mongabay interviewed may vary in their opinions regarding personal career situations, they are firmly united in their concern over what Trump’s assault on science will mean to efforts to understand and combat climate change now and in the future. Whether they live in the United States, France, Germany or China, they know there is no Planet B to which they or their children can escape if we fail to rein in climate change. To this broader view, whether a U.S. brain drain is occurring or not, seems rather academic.

Neither NOAA nor the NSF responded to inquiries for this story. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency responded with boilerplate amounting to a non-answer: “EPA’s FY 2018 budget maintains core environmental protections and regulatory obligations while focusing on the Agency’s core statutory work. As laid out in the Agency’s draft FY 2018-2022 Strategic Plan, the Administrator’s goals are designed to transform the way the Agency does business and more efficiently and effectively deliver human health and environmental results.”

Story originally published at

Cover photo by NASA’s Earth Observatory CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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