Mounting anxiety for climate research at national labs

By Umair Irfan | 01/30/2017 07:44 AM EST

The Everest Powerwall at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The Everest Powerwall at the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Photo by Lynn Freeny/DOE, courtesy of Flickr.

Scientists are concerned that climate change research may be in the crosshairs at the Department of Energy under the Trump administration.

Reports that agencies like U.S. EPA and the Department of Agriculture are facing communications restrictions, along with recent proposals from the Trump transition team for drastic cuts in environmental science in federal agencies, have some researchers at DOE’s venerable national laboratories worried that they might be next.

"[Climate change research] does seem particularly vulnerable because this administration has not given us any indication that they take it seriously as an issue affecting us and affecting the world," said Hansi Singh, a postdoctoral research fellow at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash.


Last month, Singh co-signed a letter to President Trump with more than 800 other researchers encouraging him to continue the fight against climate change and support the research behind it.

"During your campaign, you said that your ‘administration will ensure that there will be [scientific] transparency and accountability without political bias,’" the letter said. "Uphold these standards by appointing scientific advisors, Cabinet members, and federal agency leaders who respect and rely on science-based decision-making."

Trump’s nominee to lead the Energy Department, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), described climate change in his book as a "contrived, phony mess" but walked back his comments slightly during his confirmation hearing earlier this month, saying some of the changing climate is due to human activity and some is due to natural causes (Climatewire, Jan. 20).

Singh, who researches the sensitivity of Arctic and Antarctic regions to atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, said scientists need to be more vocal in making the case for their work rather than counting on job security through obscurity.

"I definitely hear this often from scientists that work for the different agencies that ‘my science is highly insulated.’ I think that is not the correct approach," she said. "If they’re coming for one of us, they’re coming for all of us."

Born of the Manhattan Project, the Department of Energy’s 17 national labs operate the world’s most powerful lasers, run the fastest supercomputers in the country and maintain the most devastating weapons arsenal known to humanity.

Perry called the national labs the "crown jewel of this country from an intellectual and certainly scientific standpoint."

Unlike scientists at other federal agencies, researchers at 16 of the 17 national labs are employed by contractors, while the labs themselves are owned by the government, an arrangement known as GOCO (government-owned, contractor-operated). At the remaining lab, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL), with facilities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the scientists are government employees.

Asked whether NETL scientists are concerned about the Trump administration’s attitudes toward climate change, a spokeswoman for the lab wrote in an email that "NETL’s role is to focus on research and therefore NETL is not in the position to discuss policy."

DOE did not respond to a request for comment.

‘We’re all feeling pretty low’

A climate modeler at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, who asked not to be named due to fear of employer retaliation, said he is concerned about the rhetoric from members of the Trump administration, particularly the "vast exaggeration of uncertainty" in climate change.

"There’s a pretty overt pattern of them denying basic scientific facts, in this case regarding what the planet is doing and why it is doing it," he said.

Trump has described climate change as a "hoax," and his transition chief for EPA, Myron Ebell, has suggested cutting that agency’s workforce by two-thirds (Greenwire, Jan. 26). Proposals from the Trump transition team also suggested scrapping several research and development offices at DOE and cutting funds for nuclear physics and advanced computing, according to a report published in The Hill.

These attitudes from the highest levels of the administration have started to wear on the morale of scientists at national labs.

"It’s a real bummer, of course," said the Los Alamos researcher. "We’re all feeling pretty low, especially when you have basic scientific facts used as a political football."

Scientists at the national labs insist that they are merely reporting their findings and that the politicization of their work, particularly climate science, is out of their hands. "We provide the data, and the policy and the decisions are in the hands of federal officials," said David Keim, a spokesman for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "We don’t do policy. We do science."

Nonetheless, researchers said they would resist any attempts to meddle with their work or their findings, and Energy secretary nominee Perry vowed to defend the scientists in his charge from assaults on their integrity.

"I am going to protect the men and women of the scientific community from anyone that would attack them, no matter what their reason may be, at the Department of Energy," Perry told lawmakers.

It’s all about the budget

But the bigger threat to climate science at DOE may be the budget.

Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), the nominee to lead the White House Office of Management and Budget, which sets funding levels for agencies, has been circumspect on his views on climate change.

In a since-deleted Facebook post in response to a funding request for the Zika virus outbreak last year, he questioned the need for government funding of scientific research.

"Some people want me to pass a ‘clean’ bill (which I suppose means not paying for it with spending reductions elsewhere)," Mulvaney wrote. "Other folks want us to fund more research if we can find a way to pay for it. No one has written me yet, though, to ask what might be the best question: do we really need government-funded research at all."

In his confirmation hearing last week, Mulvaney said, "I challenge the premise" of Sen. Tim Kaine’s (D-Va.) question as to whether climate change is driven by human activity and is a huge risk (E&E Daily, Jan. 25).

"If you don’t believe in climate change, you won’t be proposing budgetary allocations to deal with it," Kaine said.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), a former researcher at DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the only physicist in Congress, said the agency’s budget rather than political pressure may be the biggest hurdle for climate science under Trump.

"That’s one thing I’m extremely concerned about," said Foster, whose district near Chicago encompasses DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory. "Building up a scientific effort in an area takes years or decades, and it can be destroyed in a single budget cycle."

Even for researchers in GOCO labs who don’t answer directly to the federal government, their work is imperiled if they don’t get the funds to pursue their work. "Nothing saves you if the budget is cut," Foster said.

‘Curiosity and interest’

Though members of the Trump administration have disavowed a questionnaire sent to DOE last month asking for names of personnel who attended climate change meetings, some lawmakers say their constituents are still anxious about budget cuts in climate research in order to fulfill Trump’s promises to reduce the size of government.

"This is exactly what all of us fear," said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), whose district includes Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "For anyone who said that you can’t take President Trump seriously, he is doing exactly what he said, so we should continue to be concerned."

"I represent about 10,000 scientists who work at our national labs," he said. "They’re worried."

However, Swalwell said he spoke to Perry at the inauguration and said that he looks forward to working with him. "My problem is not with Rick Perry. My problem is with his boss," he said.

Other lawmakers with DOE labs in their districts said they hadn’t heard any specific concerns about climate science from their voters. A spokesman for Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), who has Los Alamos National Laboratory in his district, said he "remains concerned about the seriousness with which the Trump administration views climate science research across the board, particularly at our nation’s leading research facilities."

A spokesman for Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), who represents PNNL, said in an email that "[t]he Congressman is proud to represent Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and is looking forward to ensuring that the success of the laboratory will continue."

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), whose district encircles Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, did not respond to a request for comment.

There haven’t been any overt signals from DOE as to what’s in store for climate research, though an anonymous worker told "This American Life" that agency employees scrubbed climate change references from documents so that certain projects wouldn’t draw the ire of the new leadership (E&E News PM, Jan. 26).

"In this case, right now, DOE is not issuing a lot of things [to direct our communication work at the lab]," said Greg Koller, a spokesman for PNNL. "It’s business as usual here for us."

The laboratory has not received any directives for its social media and outreach efforts, but Koller said there is a lot of uncertainty as to where this administration will go in climate science.

"In general, what we’re hearing is curiosity and interest in knowing what the incoming priorities will be," said Koller, who has been through three presidential transitions at the laboratory. "There’s always, with a transition, some changes that happen."