James McAuley and Chris Mooney of
What initially looked like an impish dig at President Trump by French President Emmanuel Macron over climate policy has turned into a concrete plan.
First, when the Trump administration proposed slashing federal science budgets and then, on June 1, when Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Macron took to social media to offer (in perfect English) to greet with open arms — and research dollars — American scientists worried about the political climate as well as global warming.
Macron urged worried climate scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to see France as a “second homeland” and to come work there because “we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again.”
Two years after the Paris climate accord was adopted, the French government is unveiling a list of 18 “laureates” — 13 of them working in the United States — who have won a “Make Our Planet Great Again” competition for $70 million of research grants awarded for as long as five years. They include professors and researchers at Cornell University, Columbia University, Stanford University and other institutions.
“For me, the chance to work on some very exciting science questions with my French colleagues and not be so dependent on the crazy stuff that goes on in Congress and with the current administration is honestly very attractive,” Louis A. Derry, a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, said in an interview. “But it can be embarrassing to try and explain what is going on at home right now.”
Derry lamented a “devaluing of science by this administration.” And he said the tax plan Congress is considering would have a “catastrophic” effect on graduate students. “I don’t think the country is well served by this,” he said.
The French government’s offer attracted 1,822 applications, nearly two-thirds of them from the United States. France’s research ministry pruned that to 450 “high-quality” candidates for long-term projects. A second round of grants will be awarded in the partnership with Germany.
Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science and policy at Britain’s University of East Anglia and director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, helped the French government choose this round of grant winners.
About half of the applicants had been working for more than 12 years after earning their PhDs, Le Quéré said. The average age was 45, she said, and “most are in the middle of productive careers.”
“I jumped at the promise of a five-year contract!” said Alessandra Giannini, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who studies the effects of warming oceans on Africa’s Sahel region.
She saw Macron’s video and, weary of short-term grants and worried about growing budget pressures in the United States, applied. “I am a midcareer scientist almost entirely supported by federal research grants. My contract with the university is renewed yearly contingent on funding,” she said in an email.
Macron’s Monday announcement came at “Station F,” in some ways a symbol of his vision for France. A converted rail station in a largely forgotten corner of Paris, it bills itself as the world’s largest start-up facility, a place where those with big ideas can roll up their sleeves and get to work. Although the project was launched before Macron came to power, it has become an early embodiment of his pro-capitalistic presidency.
“France has even risen to the top rank in Europe in terms of fundraising by start-ups — something we would not have imagined a few years ago,” said Roxanne Varza, director of Station F. “The current government is also very attentive and wishes to support us more than ever. We even see entrepreneurs leaving Silicon Valley to come or return to create their start-up in France.”
Many of the climate scientists moving from the United States have spent time in France or are from Europe originally. Crucially, many already have some degree of facility with the French language. Some will split their time to keep their academic chairs in the United States.
Derry, a former mineral and petroleum exploration geologist, has been at Cornell since 1994 and will split his time between there and the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, part of the French National Center for Scientific Research. He studied in France in the early 1990s and has previously returned for six-month stints.
He has studied the emission and absorption of carbon dioxide in the Himalayas and other areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates have collided to create mountain ranges.
He is engaged in “critical zone” research, which integrates studies of biological, chemical and geological changes from Earth’s surface through the top of the tree canopy. He plans to focus his efforts on how water moves through a watershed; similar research is going on in France.
Derry is the director of the National Science Foundation office for nine critical zone observatories. It is unclear how they will be funded beyond mid-2018. “That’s a big concern for all of us, as the infrastructure, both hardware and human, can’t just be shut down and turned on again,” he said. People working on the projects “are quite naturally looking elsewhere for work.”
Camille Parmesan, a biologist who teaches at Britain’s University of Plymouth and the University of Texas at Austin, also won a grant and will move her research to an ecology center in Moulis, France.
She is exploring the effects of climate change on wild plants and animals. This has included detailed fieldwork on individual butterfly species and communities as well as analyses of global effects on plants and animals. She has also co-authored assessments of climate change’s effects on agricultural insect pests and human diseases.
“Plants and animals have been moving toward the poles and up mountains — and flowering or breeding earlier in springtime — as they attempt to track a shifting climate,” she said in an email. “This research has provided independent biological support of the warming trends shown in climate data, and has helped shape the international determination of 2 degrees Celsius as a threshold for ‘dangerous’ climate change.”
In Moulis, Parmesan plans to study “how these movements of animals out of the tropics and into Europe may be bringing tropical diseases into countries and medical systems that have not had them historically.”
Another winner in the French grant contest was Núria Teixidó Ullod, a visiting scientist at Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University and a scientist at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples. Her research is sponsored by the European Research Program.
“The research project that I will perform in France seeks to investigate how climate and acidification affects marine biodiversity as well as the potential of species to adapt to these changes in their environment,” she said in an email.
“This project will also help to investigate natural climate solutions for mitigation strategies,” she said. “This project is unique because I will work in natural marine systems that represent a glimpse of what oceans may look like in the near future.”
Giannini’s research has conclusively demonstrated that the persistent drought that afflicted the Sahel region in the 1970s and 1980s could be tied to rising sea surface temperatures worldwide. That meant there was no need to blame local population pressures on the environment to explain the drought.
Recently, she has examined what portion of surface temperature changes can be ascribed to fossil fuel burning. “In the case of the Sahel, it’s looking more and more like the combination of greenhouse gases and aerosols specific to the second half of the 20th century played an important role in drought,” she wrote.
Giannini plans to do an additional 15 to 20 years of research — “I love my job!” she wrote. But she said over the past 15 to 20 years, it had already become harder to obtain federal funding, “meaning many more proposals to submit and resubmit, which ultimately fragments work into bits too small to be able to find some cohesion, and time to think about the big picture questions.”
With budget pressures and the prioritizing of defense spending over discretionary spending, and “the savage tax cuts for the rich that are making the rounds of Congress,” she said it wasn’t hard to see “blood and tears coming our way.”
“What stands out in the motivations is that many mentioned that it is currently very difficult to conduct innovative scientific research in the U.S. with the planned government cuts and general political climate, especially the politicization of climate research,” Le Quéré said of the people who applied for grants. She said France could provide “a much more fertile environment to conduct innovative research, and consequently take international scientific leadership.”
Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, said, “While we need scientists from around the globe and in different locations working collaboratively to solve the most critical challenges facing our world — including climate change — the news of some U.S. scientists choosing to move to France to conduct their research is troubling.”
“We need all countries, including the U.S., to fund strong federal climate research programs, protect the rights of scientists to freely express their findings, and support urgent action on climate change,” McEntee said.
Giannini said she plans to use the French grant to analyze different models of ocean temperatures that might explain past Sahel droughts and the potential for a wetter climate in the future.
Asked whether she hoped to slow climate change, she said “Well, we are there already.”
Giannini said, however, that “we should do all we can to curb the warming. Otherwise I am convinced that the ice caps will melt, and there will be no going back.” She has family in Venice, and she said, “Nothing brings it home to me better than contemplating losing Venice to sea-level rise every time I visit my little nephew and niece.”