As confusing and conflicting tweets, leaks and directives fly from the new administration in Washington, D.C., many local researchers are unsure about what’s in store for their work and the role of science in America.
A few days after Donald Trump was sworn in as president, University of Washington graduate student Sarah O’Neal got word that her fate was in limbo.
O’Neal’s research on Alaska’s salmon fisheries is funded through an Environmental Protection Agency fellowship. But the new administration imposed a freeze on some EPA spending and contracts, and no one could tell O’Neal what that meant for her project.
“I may or may not get paid on Monday,” she said. “I told my landlord I might not be able to pay the rent.”
A statement from the EPA on Friday said the freeze on grants like the fellowship program had been lifted. But O’Neal still hadn’t received any official reassurance from the agency.
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As confusing and conflicting tweets, leaks and directives fly from Washington, D.C., many local researchers are equally unsure about what’s in store for their work and the role of science in America.
“What I’m seeing around me is total uncertainty … and fear,” said UW professor Eric Steig, who drills ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica to reconstruct past climate and help project future impacts from greenhouse gases.
With a president who once called global warming a hoax cooked up by China, climate scientists who rely on federal funding feel particularly vulnerable. Trump advisers have said they intend to strip out NASA funding for satellite observations of Earth’s atmosphere and oceans. Administration requests for the lists of federal employees working on climate change sent a chill through the field, though plans to remove EPA’s climate-change webpages were scrapped after an outcry.
There’s deep concern that an administration that rejects information it doesn’t like will “kill the messenger” who delivers that information, said UW atmospheric sciences professor Dennis Hartmann.
“The nonacceptance of what is generally regarded to be the facts, and the presentation of alternative facts, is of great concern to science,” he said. “We’re in the business of trying to establish what the facts are in terms of the natural world.”
The U.S. is the global leader in climate science, but that could change if funding is slashed and a hostile attitude prevails, said UW professor David Battisti, whose work includes forecasting climate-change impacts on food production.
“There are going to be scientists who leave the U.S.,” he said. “I’m seriously thinking about it.”
Environmental science, especially related to air and water pollution, also could be at risk from a White House determined to cut regulation of business and industry.
The Puget Sound Institute at the UW Tacoma gets much of its funding from the EPA, as part of ambitious, ongoing efforts to clean up and protect Puget Sound. The existing contract seems safe, said director Joel Baker. But the entire project is up for renewal this year.
Baker said he spent much of the past week “trying really hard not to panic, and talk my staff down off the walls.”
Given the economic and ecological importance of Puget Sound to the state of Washington, it’s hard to see any rationale for eliminating programs to protect it, he said. O’Neal pointed out that research on clean water and salmon in Alaska helps support 14,000 fishing and related jobs in Bristol Bay.
“This argument that keeps getting trotted out, that you have to choose between a clean environment and a strong economy, has been disproven so many times,” Baker said.
As one of the nation’s leading research centers, the UW pulls in about $1 billion a year in federal grants. Roughly 60 percent of that money is for biomedical research. There’s no indication that the new administration intends to scale back funding for research on disease and health — but also no assurance that it won’t be trimmed along with the rest of the federal budget.
An analysis by the journal Science found that regardless of which party controls Congress or the White House, funding for science has held relatively steady at about 10 percent of nondefense, discretionary funding.
Based on Trump’s statements and cabinet picks, if deep cuts come, Battisti predicts they will hit hardest at NASA, EPA, the Department of Energy and, perhaps, the National Science Foundation, which funds much of the nation’s climate and basic science research.
The pinch would be most acute for graduate students and early-career scientists, veteran researchers pointed out. A shortage of funding, coupled with a general disdain for science and data, could make science jobs less attractive.
“If you get up in the morning and the president of the United States is saying things that are just blatantly stupid about science, it’s not a real encouraging career path,” Baker said. “What worries me is that we’re driving a whole generation away from science.”
The Trump presidency may also be turning a generation of scientists into activists.
Sarah Myhre, a postdoctoral scholar in the UW’s Future of Ice Initiative, joined the new advocacy group 500 Women Scientists. Along with like-minded colleagues, she took part in the Seattle women’s march on Jan. 21, and is helping map out strategies to stand up for women in science.
“I don’t think it’s going to be an easy path,” she said. “But scientists have a very important role to play in what will happen politically, and in the transition to a green economy.”
“I’ve not often been the person to do a lot of marching,” said UW fisheries biologist Tim Essington, who’s considering the trip to D.C. “I just think in this environment, making sure that every voice gets heard is very important.”