Scientists left forlorn by Trump administration

Josh Hartman - Grant funds.jpg

The Board of Regents-approved UA Operating and Capital Budget request predicts $8 million in increased grant funding over the coming two years. This conflicts with financial reports from the Office of Management and Budget, which predicts declining grant revenues in the future as funding constricts, competition from other research institutions heats up and retention of researchers becomes more difficult. These factors are not mentioned in the regents report. Josh Hartman/ Sun Star Photo credit: Josh Hartman


The Trump administration’s stance on climate change and research has campus scientists concerned about the future of their profession.

“The early indications are that there’s not going to be a real push for research on climate change,” John Walsh, said. “I think there’s a lot of concern around here for what’s going to happen to climate change research.”

Walsh is a professor and chief scientist at the International Arctic Research Center.

In late January, President Donald Trump’s administration issued memos to at least four federal agencies to not make any public statements and to consult with senior officials before speaking to the media. The administration also pulled down mentions of climate change from White House and State Department websites.

Several scientists cited this order as an example of cause for worry.

“It’s been a dramatic transition, like none that I’ve ever seen,” Larry Hinzman, vice chancellor of research, said about the new administration. “It is going to have a big impact on everything including research… They’ve made it quite clear that they’re not interested in climate research, which we do a lot of.”

Research grants at UAF

Federal grants pay for a significant part of research on campus. Research makes up about a third of UAF’s revenue, according to Hinzman.

“We are dependent on research funding here,” Walsh said, explaining how much funds the university gets in grants versus what it invests. “The university invests a dollar in research and another seven or eight dollars in external [federal] funding comes in.”

Grants are also useful for “visibility” and practical benefits. For example, the State of Alaska uses research from the Institute of Northern Engineering during construction–which gets the university wider attention, according to Walsh.

“We do a lot with trying to integrate research in teaching,” Hinzman said. “A lot of the recent findings, the work that we do, makes it into our educational process so that our students come out right on the forefront of science.”

“UAF is the world’s leading institution in the number of annual research publications about the Arctic, but needs to continue to recruit and retain excellent faculty to increase its competitive advantage,” reads the FY16 Financial Review written by the Office of Management and the Budget.

Possible impact

“My feeling is that there are grants that probably are at risk, but we still have a lot of really really good research being done here at UAF,” David Newman said. “People should still be able to get funding.”

Both Hinzman and Walsh that they couldn’t think of any researchers in specific who were currently being impacted by lack of grant funding. But dissent was expressed by Newman, who is a professor of physics and member of the nonprofit American Physical Society, which works to spread physics knowledge.

“I certainly would say that there are people who have not put in proposals because of the new administration’s thrusts,” Newman said.

Some of UAF’s strongest departments, climate and permafrost research, are not looked upon fondly by the new administration. These are the things that could be at risk for funding cuts, Newman said. He also acknowledged that things are still uncertain.

“Nobody has any real idea what is going to happen,” Newman said. “People on [capitol] hill looked, for lack of a better word, kind of shell-shocked.”

Newman went to Washington D.C. on a leadership convocation with the Physical Society. He and other members went visited the offices of congress to talk about science and to ask for more science funding.

Hinzman offered a comparatively optimistic view for grant funding despite the challenges. He said that climate research is still important for the new administration so funding should still increase.

“Things are getting tough and we’ve lost some really good people, but our research funding continues to increase because our researchers are really entrepreneurial and they’re really scrambling to address the challenges that are out there,” Hinzman said.

Hinzman emphasized that that people all over the world benefit from this research, as changes in the Arctic climate influence the rest of the world. Understanding the climate is necessary to prepare and maintain national defense, while businesses are interested in knowing what will happen with their investments in the Arctic.

“We’re not gonna stop doing climate research because it is so important,” Hinzman said. “I’m optimistic that our research will increase and we’ll continue to grow because there’s a lot of research needs out there.”

A future for students

Walsh emphasized that the effects on students are dependent on how long science funding is low.

“We just don’t know it’s going to be a four year blip or something longer term that would really be a factor to consider if you’re young and considering a career in science,” Walsh said.

In UAF’s situation, it may be more difficult to get federal funding because good researchers are needed to get funds. If things like Strategic Pathways make the campus less hospitable for researchers, the university would have a harder time getting research dollars, according to Newman.

“Here on campus, education and research are fundamentally intertwined—we can not and should not try to disentangle them,” Newman said.

Censorship of science

Newman described a colleague of his who received a call telling her that she would not be allowed to go to Capitol Hill with the Physical Society even as a private citizen.

The congressional offices wanted the Society to push back against the order because it makes it harder for the offices to gather information, according to Newman.

Under new policies, congressmen can’t contact government scientists for data directly. Instead, they’re routed to the public affairs office for a specific agencies. Those agencies get a statement from scientists, which are then “properly filtered” before being sent on, Newman said.

Even scientists who aren’t in government agencies may be less inclined to talk about their research, according to Newman.

“That’s a disturbing sign right there,” Walsh said. “The feeling, at least among people that I know at the university, is that if there is any attempt to clamp down on information release we’re going to fight tooth and nail to get the truth out there.”

An economic benefit of science funding

An increase in science funding has been correlated with an increase in the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, commonly called the GDP, Newman said.

“There is a direct correlation between our national economy and science funding,” Newman said. “Science funding is not throwing money away … [Science] leads to a huge benefit for our economy.”

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1 Response

  1. db cooper says:

    This is the same BOR in the face of declining UA enrollment year after year has built a budget plan dependent on a 50% increase in enrollment. Maybe they should hire an underfunded climate scientist to explain to them how to model future projections based on past observations.

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