Scientists Worry About Backlash Against Climate Change Research : The Two-Way After years of budget and political pressure, some climate scientists are changing the way they describe their research, and avoiding the term "climate change."
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Climate Scientists Watch Their Words, Hoping To Stave Off Funding Cuts

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Climate Scientists Watch Their Words, Hoping To Stave Off Funding Cuts

Climate Scientists Watch Their Words, Hoping To Stave Off Funding Cuts

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration has been openly hostile to climate science, pulling out of the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gases, cutting funding for climate research, scrubbing the term climate change from federal websites. Well, now NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher is finding that some scientists are avoiding the word climate, and she's here to tell us more. Hey there, Becky.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hey.

GREENE: So what are you finding? What's going on here?

HERSHER: Well, scientists are avoiding the term climate change.

GREENE: Like, they're not using it in research papers or anywhere?

HERSHER: Well, they're not using it in grant proposals and summaries. So the number of National Science Foundation grants with that phrase, climate change, is down 40 percent this year. Some people are using alternative terms that aren't so politicized. Some people may be avoiding the subject altogether. Like, you're a scientist, you study climate change in groundwater. Maybe a couple of years ago, you applied for federal money. You called that grant proposal "Climate Change Effects On Aquifer Stability." Well, maybe now you call that "Environmental Change And Groundwater Trends."

GREENE: So why are they doing this? Are they hoping they have a better chance of getting funding from the Trump administration if they don't use this term?

HERSHER: Exactly. And in some cases, program managers may actually be encouraging scientists to do this. So these are the people at the National Science Foundation who interface with scientists. Those people may be trying to protect climate research the same way scientists are. So if an original proposal for funding may be still all about climate change, maybe the public summary that goes on the NSF website talks about extreme weather instead. And actually, not everyone thinks that that's a bad thing. Here's climate scientist Michael Dietze from Boston University.

MICHAEL DIETZE: Everyone I've talked to at NSF is committed to making sure climate science keeps getting done, but at the same time not turning yourself into a target unnecessarily.

HERSHER: You can call that self-preservation, you can call it self-censorship, but it all goes back to fear.

GREENE: And the NSF, we should say, gives a lot of these grants, and they are an arm of the government, right?

HERSHER: Exactly. And they're really the gold standard in terms of political independence. They do peer review. So if you want funding from the NSF, you go to a group of scientists first to decide how worthy your project is.

GREENE: So if they're politically independent, I mean, is there evidence that research using the term climate change is actually less likely to get funding from them?

HERSHER: There's no evidence that individual proposals to the NSF are living or dying according to the words climate change. But overall, funding is down for climate research. The president's budget, for example, singled out climate change programs by name. This is the only subject area that got singled out. And the number of requests for grant proposals about climate change has also gone down. So there is evidence that climate science is under fire, but there's no evidence that the process by which grants are being given has been politicized.

GREENE: Well, does the wording matter at all? I mean, in other words, like, if scientists are avoiding using the term climate change but still doing the same research, is that a big deal?

HERSHER: You know, that's the million-dollar question. It does matter in that if the words are changing that means it's politicized. And it's politicized, then some climate scientists may decide, you know, I'm better off in another field. These are people with marketable skills. You may decide, this is just too hard, I don't want to do these backflips, and go be a software engineer. You make a lot more money.

GREENE: NPR science reporter Rebecca Hersher. Becky, thanks.

HERSHER: Thanks.

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