The Shifting Landscape of Science


By Eric Davidson, President, American Geophysical Union and Chris McEntee, Executive Director/CEO, American Geophysical Union:

It has been said that our greatest fears lie in anticipation. Following the U.S election results this past November, many of AGU’s members are beset by fears of what might happen with regard to federal support for scientific research and the tenets of scientific integrity, progress in advancing inclusiveness in science workplaces and learning places, promoting the education and development of the next generation of scientists, how climate science may be affected, and whether science itself could become more politicized. Indeed, throughout the Fall Meeting this past December, there was a great deal of talk about the coming sea change in Washington. Several keynote addresses, including those from outgoing Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and California Governor Jerry Brown, mapped their views of the political landscape that scientists might expect to encounter during a Trump administration and the new Congress, while at the same time rallying those in attendance to strengthen their active support for the scientific enterprise.

Even before we convened in San Francisco, AGU started to address several of these concerns by directly mobilizing our membership to sign a petition on, urging the President-elect to appoint a well-qualified science advisor (8,000+ signatures and growing). We signed on to a multi-scientific society statement to the President-Elect asking for a meeting to discuss the urgent need for expert scientific advice. We also authored two timely From the Prow Posts: What I Would Say to President-Elect Trump and His Science Advisor and What the U.S. Election Results Mean for AGU, Our Science, and our Members. At the Fall Meeting itself, we convened a special Union Lecture about the shifting landscape for science featuring Lexi Schultz, AGU’s Director of Public Affairs; Daniel Kammen, Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley; Katharine Hayhoe, winner of the 2014 American Geophysical Union’s Climate Communication Prize; and Eric Davidson, AGU President and Director/Professor at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

With each new development in the science policy arena, whether announcements of nominations to lead federal science agencies, or the release of policy priorities, AGU will take action to clearly assess key areas of scientific concern, areas of opportunity, and define strategies that can be undertaken to ensure that that the work of AGU and its members continue to inform and guide the scientific political discourse locally, nationally and internationally.

Areas of Concern:
There is no denying that as a candidate and as President-elect, Trump has publicly stated views that are inconsistent with the best science, including biomedical sciences and geosciences. Among the most the alarming of these are his perspective on the human causes of climate change and his pledge to back away from the Paris climate agreement. In addition, his nominations of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the EPA and Former Texas Governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy – both of whom have refuted the realities of climate change – are genuinely worrisome.

Also concerning was the extensive and intrusive questionnaire that the incoming administration’s transition team sent to Department of Energy employees – which sought the names and other details about of civil servants working in the fields of climate science and renewable energy – and another to the State Department seeking information on existing programs and activities intended to promote gender equality.

Finally, there has been much discussion in Congress and the Administration about cutting budgets – particularly in the areas of climate and Earth science.

Areas of Opportunity:
While the forecast does seem dark, it is not apocalyptic. President Trump and those in his administration have made funding and rebuilding public infrastructure a priority, along with maintaining clean air and clean water while advancing economic growth – endeavors  that are heavily dependent on science. Wise and enduring investment in infrastructure will require understanding of threats of natural hazards, as well as human-augmented hazards, such as sea level rise and climate change. Trump has also stated that he supports basic research and science – a view echoed by many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. We will respond with increased efforts to demonstrate that basic and applied research in the geosciences benefits humanity in numerous ways, including contributions to economic prosperity.

There are growing numbers of Republicans in Congress – including Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida – who are publicly speaking out about the threats posed by climate change and endorsing the long term national interest in funding for the geosciences. Moreover, hundreds of businesses – aware of the great economic potential of all forms of energy technologies – have urged the U.S. to hold fast to the Paris agreement.

At the same time, space research and exploration have generated a lot of excitement on the part of both the incoming Administration and Congress, and could see growth in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to remember three things.  First, AGU, our members, and our sister science organizations are not in this alone – we have many allies in the business community who understand the need for and value of scientific research and the importance of a stable climate for economic prosperity and human wellbeing. We will need to build, strengthen, and call upon those relationships.

Second, if the US federal government’s actions turn out to be disappointing, remember that state and local governments can also lead by example. And for our non-US members, your governments’ roles and international organizations will become increasingly important. We can promote international scientific collaboration and the value of science at multiple levels of governance throughout the world.

Third, the wheels of the federal government often move slowly. Nominees to head key scientific agencies – including NOAA, NASA, USGS, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy – have yet to be named. The federal budget for science and other issues will take months to work out and will be revisited each year, thus giving us time to mount a sustained effort.

Of course, this time will mean nothing if AGU and our members don’t take the opportunity to make the case for why Earth and space science is vital to the economy, our environment, our security, and our health. We must use this time to mobilize ourselves and our supporters, build coalitions, and weigh in effectively on these important deliberations.

AGU – Taking Action:
With that in mind, AGU is continuing to build upon existing programs while developing new efforts including:

  • ORGANIZING and RECRUITING congressional science champions, including those who will lead our bipartisan Earth and Space Science Caucus
  • ENRICHING relationships with members of Congress and the new Administration and the private sector through congressional briefings and one-on-one meetings
  • CONVENING with sister science societies in the US and abroad on regular and frequent basis in order to amplify the collective voice of science
  • ENABLING AGU scientists through our Sharing Science program to communicate more effectively and personally the value of science with administrators and legislators at every level of government, as well as the media and other community leaders
  • STRENGTHENING Thriving Earth Exchange community partnerships to address real, practical local problems – linking scientists with particular expertise to local communities

Be Part of the Solution:
Only a portion of this work can be carried out by the staff and leadership at our national office; we are facing unprecedented challenges that require your involvement. You are the most trusted and influential voices from your representatives’ home districts. Many of you are already thinking of getting involved; others may be less certain. Wherever you currently are, we ask you to consider stepping outside your comfort zone to reach out beyond your traditional peer groups, and communicate the importance of our science to the community at large. Actions you can take are:

  • GATHER strength from the keynote speeches, talks, policy roundtables and ideas from the 2016 Fall Meeting from elected officials and students, AGU leaders and trailblazing researchers, policy experts and educators.
  • COMMUNICATE the value of the work you do to your elected representatives, whether by phone, e-mail or in person in your community or in your national capital. Invite them to visit your research facility to learn about what you do and why it matters. This includes federal, state, and local elected officials. Find the contact info for your US federal elected officials here. Visit their local offices and build a personal rapport.
  • FORGE relationships with new allies. AGU is not only looking to the science societies that are familiar to us all, but the private sector as well – aerospace, agriculture associations, public health, civil engineering, utilities, reinsurance and risk management. AGU is doing this nationally by initiating private dialogues and convening meetings and task forces. You and your institutions can do the same locally and regionally.
  • BUILD your skills and confidence by learning from the workshops, toolkits and other resources that AGU, our sister scientific societies, and universities have created, including AGU’s own Sharing Science initiative and Science and Policy Action Center. Be on the lookout for more content and activities that we plan to roll out in the coming months to further enable our members to become active and effective.
  • SHARE the story of why your science matters with AGU! Your first-hand account makes for a powerful narrative that – when communicated to the public, the media, and key decision-makers – can help shape opinions and guide policy. AGU will be building and curating a collection of your narratives to be shared broadly and used widely.
  • PROTECT your rights by working with institutions like the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund to understand how to defend yourselves and your work. Report to AGU any harassment or problems you encounter for doing your science.

As we move into a new political cycle led by a new administration and a new Congress, we must not become captives of fear, defeat, or apathy, but rather look for opportunities to build new coalitions to deepen and broaden the understanding of the value of our science among those who currently undervalue it. A crisis, if it turns out to be one, would be a terrible thing to waste, so reach out and encourage your colleagues to take action with you. This is will likely prove to be a long and difficult challenge, extending beyond a single political election cycle, and AGU will be there with you and for you every step of the way.

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  1. Alan Robock

    Dear Eric and Chris,

    In response to an email from Jim Evans, who is serving on the AGU Task Force on the Congressional Science Fellowship Program, I am writing to urge you to keep AGU sponsorship of two Congressional Science Fellows per year. I served as a Congressional Science Fellow myself in 1986-1987, sponsored by AAAS, and know how valuable this experience is to the Fellow and to Congress. You can read more about my experience in Robock (2001), in which I urged AMS members to be Congressional Science Fellows.

    Due to the vital importance of Congressional Science Fellows providing needed scientific advice in Congress, as well as a supply of scientists who move into a career in the legislative or executive branches of the U.S. government, I urge you to keep the status quo of two AGU Congressional Science Fellows per year. This is even more urgent in the current climate of control of the Executive and Legislative branches of government by anti-science interests.

    In fact, your recent Jan. 18, 2017 statement ( urges AGU to, among other things, take action by “ENABLING AGU scientists through our Sharing Science program to communicate more effectively and personally the value of science with administrators and legislators at every level of government, as well as the media and other community leaders.” What could be more effective to accomplish this than to put AGU scientists directly into Congress through the Congressional Science Fellowship program?

    AGU is in excellent financial shape and can surely afford to support two Congressional Science Fellows. By the way, five years ago AAAS reduced their number of Congressional Science Fellows from two to one, and I successfully led a campaign to convince them to reverse the decision. I urge you to discuss this matter with the current AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt, himself a former Congressional Science Fellow. His perspectives on the value of supporting two Congressional Science Fellows would certainly be useful to AGU.

    I look forward to your response.


    Alan Robock
    Editor, Reviews of Geophysics
    Fellow, AGU
    Lifetime Member, AGU
    Member, AGU President’s Circle
    Past President, AGU Atmospheric Sciences Section

    Robock, Alan (2001), The AMS Congressional Science Fellowship Program: Why you should consider it. Bull. Amer. Met. Soc., 82, 315-317.

    • jspeiser

      Dear Alan,

      AGU remains committed to the Congressional Science Fellowship. For over thirty years, AGU has placed a highly-qualified fellow in the offices of either an individual Member of Congress or on a committee for a one-year assignment.

      Moving forward, more and more of our members have expressed a desire to get personally involved in efforts to share their science even more broadly. Thus, by investing resources in the scaling up of new programs, we are building on the success of efforts like the Congressional Science Fellowship. Our much-lauded Sharing Science Network, for example, helps scientists to effectively share their work with broader audiences – the public, media, K-12 audiences, as well as policymakers – and promote the widespread awareness of Earth and space science and its value.

      AGU is dedicated to making sure that the best science, communicated in an abundance of ways, reaches all echelons of our diverse society.

      Chris McEntee, CEO/Executive Director, American Geophysical Union

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