Scientists Prepare to Fight for Their Work During ‘the Trumpocene’

At a conference of 20,000 scientists, the echoed a worry is echoed again and again: Will Trump, who has made statements on climate change and vaccines that contradict the overwhelming scientific evidence, be not just anti-climate, but “anti-science”?
Sarah Kaplan
December 15, 2016
People hold signs as they listen to a group of scientists speak during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting Dec. 13 in San Francisco.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

SAN FRANCISCO — Activism wasn't originally on the agenda for Stephen Mullens, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma. He'd come to the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union — the first major gathering of the world's earth and climate scientists since the election of Donald Trump — to do what one usually does at these sorts of conferences: meet with colleagues, browse posters, listen to panel discussions, wait in long lines for free coffee.

But the dawn of what one researcher called “the Trumpocene” has everyone at AGU reckoning with their role in this new era.

For Mullens, that meant attending his first-ever protest Tuesday. Standing in a crowd of fellow researchers, he listened as Beka Economopoulos, the director of the Natural History Museum, a mobile museum based in New York, implored them to get “out of the labs and into the streets” in response to the president-elect's positions on climate change.

The protest, organized by the activist group ClimateTruth.org and the Natural History Museum, drew several hundred people from the massive AGU conference happening a few blocks away. Some of the scientists donned white lab coats distributed by the organizers. Others held up signs that read “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” “Ice has no agenda — it just melts” and “Protect science.” A few looked nervous when a speaker led the crowd in a chant of “Stand up. Fight back.” But they gamely joined in.

“A lot of us are INTJs; we're engineer people,” Mullens said afterward. “Science is very grueling work, and we have personalities that are more introverted. We're not people who get out there.” He also noted that most researchers are wary of engaging in politics, lest they give the appearance of promoting a particular ideology, rather than the facts.

But the rally organizers were right, he continued: “This is about climate change, but it is also about evidence-based policy . . . With this presidential election, I am motivated to be more of an activist.”

The annual AGU meeting in San Francisco draws more than 20,000 researchers from the earth, atmospheric and space science communities to discuss their research on the natural world. But this year, the shock waves from the political earthquake of the past month touched every part of the conference.

Shortly after the election, the AGU — which represents some 60,000 scientists worldwide — posted a petition urging Trump to swiftly appoint a science adviser (he hasn't yet). The group also scrambled to add a special session to the meeting discussing the prospects for science under the new administration.

“Ever since the election we've been hearing a lot of concerns, anxiety, uncertainty about what this will mean for our members,” said AGU's executive director Christine McEntee. “We thought it was really important to provide a session to be able to say, what do we know today, and also provide an opportunity for some tips and ideas of what they could do to help make sure the voice of science is heard and amplified.”

Often, prominent speakers at AGU referred only obliquely to the fears earth science researchers have about the incoming administration: that funding will be cut, research disregarded and environmental regulations dismantled.

But on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave a keynote lecture encouraging government scientists to “fight disinformation” and “speak out” if they feel scientific integrity is being undermined in the new administration.

“Make your voices heard and make them relevant to the people you are talking to,” she said.

During a walk through the conference just before her speech, Jewell stopped at the posters of several researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey. One half-jokingly implored her not to send in her resignation letter. Another asked what she will be doing after inauguration; Jewell said she wasn't sure yet. “But,” she added, “I won't be quiet about the importance of science.”

In the vast poster hall, where scientists present their recent research in a school-science-fair-type setting, there was a current of fear running under the conversations about tree rings and sediment layers.

“Everyone's scared. Everyone's afraid we're going to lose our funding,” Gianna Pantaleo, who studies aquatic biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said Monday. Her poster depicted declines in coral reef diversity due to ocean acidification.

“We're at this pivotal point where we really need to worry about our oceans,” she said. “And it's kind of heartbreaking because you know you're not going to have support” from the government.

A few rows away, Adam Campbell, an American researcher studying the imperiled Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica at New Zealand's University of Otago, worriedly recapped the events of the past few days with a friend from graduate school. News had just emerged that the transition team sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department asking the agency to provide the names of employees involved in climate science (the DOE rebuffed the request and the Trump transition team has since said it was “not authorized”), and the previous day Trump said that “no one really knows if climate change is real,” on national television.

“You just don't know what's coming,” Campbell said.

“It's a roller coaster,” agreed the friend, an Antarctic researcher at NASA who asked not to be named out of concern for her job. “You can sense it at work. Every week we have meetings and you just think, do we even bring up the scary thing that just happened now?”

As young scientists, their biggest personal concern was funding for research — both rely on NASA's Earth Science program to do their work, and a Trump adviser has suggested that the new administration could cut this part of the space agency.

But they also echoed a worry that's been stated again and again at this conference: Will Trump, who has made statements on climate change and vaccines that contradict the overwhelming scientific evidence, be not just anti-climate, but “anti-science”?

The NASA scientist said the election has made her question not just her engagement with politics, but how she communicates her research with her fellow citizens. “We didn't do a good enough job of making sure people knew this is real,” she said. “I feel responsible.”

She added, “I'm hoping this is a call to arms.”

Already, several groups that represent researchers are gearing up for a fight.

Representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which took part in the rally, offered advice to researchers facing political scrutiny. Last month, the group issued an open letter to Trump urging him to respect scientific integrity. The letter was signed by more than 2,000 scientists, including nearly two dozen Nobel laureates.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance to climate researchers, organized a symposium on legal issues facing scientists, and held one-on-one sessions with researchers who needed advice. The group's executive director, Lauren Kurtz, said she had 10 of these meetings on the first day of the conference — almost as many as she has during a whole week in other years.

The group is also handing out pamphlets titled “Handling Political Harassment and Legal Intimidation: A Pocket Guide for Scientists.”

“We literally thought about it the day after the election,” said Kurtz. “I have gotten a lot of calls from scientists who are really concerned . . . so it’s intended in some ways to be reassuring, to say, 'there is a game plan, we’re here to help you.’ ”

The 16-page guide contains advice on what to do if you're the target of an open records lawsuit (a strategy commonly used by opponents of climate research), who to contact if you're a government researcher who thinks that your work is being suppressed, and how to react if you get hate mail or death threats.

The AGU has its own policy on promoting unpoliticized science and protecting research from political interference, and McEntee said that the group will respond to incidents as they come up.

“I don't think we can just yet say it's all gloom and doom,” she said. “But we're watching. We're concerned, and we're watching.”

December 16, 2016