Climate Scientists Watch Their Words, Hoping To Stave Off Funding Cuts
Scientists appear to be self-censoring by omitting the term “climate change” in public grant summaries.
An NPR analysis of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation found a steadily decreasing number with the phrase “climate change” in the title or summary, resulting in a sharp drop in the term’s use in 2017. At the same time, the use of alternative terms such as “extreme weather” appears to be rising slightly.
The change in language appears to be driven in part by the Trump administration’s open hostility to the topic of climate change. Earlier this year, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, and the President’s 2018 budget proposalsingled out climate change research programs for elimination.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has been systematically removing references to climate change from its official website. Both the EPA’s leader, Scott Pruitt, and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry have said they do not accept the scientific consensus that humans are causing the planet to get warmer.
As a result, many scientists find themselves in an uncomfortable position. They are caught between environmental advocates looking to recruit allies and right-wing activists who demonize researchers and denigrate their work.
“In the scientific community, we’re very cautious people,” says Katharine Hayhoe, the director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech. “We tend to be quite averse to notoriety and conflict, so I absolutely have seen self-censorship among my colleagues. [They’ll say] ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t say it that way, because whatever funding organization or politician or agency won’t appreciate it.'”
The NSF data appears to bear out the change in language. While the number of grants with the term “climate change” in the public summary has dropped, the number of grants with the terms “environmental change” or “extreme weather” has increased slightly. That suggests that, even if research topics remain the same, the words scientists use to describe them may change.
“Scientists I know are increasingly using terms like ‘global change’, ‘environmental change’, and ‘extreme weather’, rather than explicitly saying ‘climate change’,” Jonathan Thompson, the senior ecologist at the Harvard Forest, wrote in an email to NPR. Thompson has been the lead investigator on multiple research projects funded by the NSF in recent years. “This seems to be born out of an abundance of caution to limit their exposure to any political landmines in what is already an extremely competitive process,” he wrote.
Four other climate researchers acknowledged that they had personally removed the term “climate change” from funding proposals or public summaries in the last year, or had advised graduate students who had done so. All were concerned that if they disclosed their names, it could negatively impact their future funding competitiveness.
The National Science Foundation is widely regarded to be among the most independent bodies funding federal research, so it’s particularly notable when politics seeps into statements by agency officials.
Earlier this year, the head of the NSF geosciences directorate, William Easterling, fielded a question from a climate scientist about the language used to describe NSF priorities. “Let me just be perfectly honest, the appetite of NSF right now is doing as little as it needs to to, you know, poke the bear, and yet stand by our scientific principles,” Easterling said, according to a report by the American Institute of Physics, a trade group for physicists and engineers.