Researchers decry Yale climate institute shutdown

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 03/02/2016 09:08 AM EST

The administration of Yale University has slowly bled out and killed a multidisciplinary climate change research program that has groomed promising young-career scientists, researchers associated with the program said yesterday.

The Yale Climate & Energy Institute (YCEI) will shut down in June, as first reported by the Yale Daily News (Greenwire, March 1).

"You would think an institute at Yale focused on two of the most important issues of our time — energy and climate — would garner tremendous support," said Mark Pagani, former director of YCEI. "But Yale would have to want to fund it and make that clear to those who raise the funds."

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Yale’s Office of the President did not respond to ClimateWire‘s request for comment.

Richard Levin, former president of Yale and the CEO of online education platform Coursera, launched YCEI in 2008. Levin was highly dedicated to the institute and "went far" to secure seed funding for the institute, said David Bercovici, a co-director at YCEI and a professor of geology.

Levin appointed Rajendra Pachauri, then-chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as the institute’s director and set up an operating budget of $1 million. Levin did not respond to ClimateWire‘s request for comment.

The program fostered collaboration among physical science, social science and humanities researchers at Yale. It funded research projects that were not specific to any agenda, discipline or even time scale, Bercovici said. After all, solutions to climate change do not hew to any particular discipline.

"Solutions to climate impacts and the inevitable energy transition requires a generational change in perspective, as well as a broad conversation and involvement among traditionally isolated research talent," Pagani said. "YCEI was built for that, and it’s a pity others did not see its value."

Top researchers praise program

At its peak, YCEI awarded about four $100,000 seed grants for ambitious research proposals. These projects later secured external funding and probably brought in a cumulative $9 million, Bercovici said.

The extent of the loss is reflected in the caliber of the young scientists YCEI supported. Andrew Kemp, a sea-level scientist at Tufts University, was a postdoctoral researcher at YCEI between 2013 and 2015. He has since helped pioneer a method to peer into Earth’s past to learn historic rates of sea-level rise. The work, published recently, showed that oceans are now rising at the quickest pace seen in the past 2,700 years (ClimateWire, Feb. 23).

"I was very grateful for the opportunity it gave me and absolutely loved working there," Kemp said. "I don’t doubt that it helped me find me a tenure-track position, and I am still publishing work that I started when at Yale."

Srinath Krishnan, a postdoctoral researcher at YCEI, is developing computer models to project the spread of black-legged ticks, which carry Lyme disease, in New England in the next century.

Krishnan collaborates with climate modelers and public health researchers and said he has profited immensely from being around smart people from various disciplines.

"These discussions have vastly improved my appreciation of the field and the multitude of problems related to infectious diseases and climate," he said.

Faculty searches take priority over climate

The problems at YCEI began after Levin stepped down as president of Yale in 2012. The new administration, headed by Peter Salovey since 2013, seemed to have different priorities, Pagani said.

Pagani took over directorship at YCEI in 2012 and worked to expand the institute’s reach, talent pool and capacity. Among the people affiliated with the program at the time was Gary Brudvig,
a professor of chemistry who is trying to pioneer artificial photosynthesis. Brudvig received a $25 million seed grant from billionaire California environmentalist Tom Steyer
in 2012 to set up an energy institute. The energy institute was to connect with Yale’s main campus through YCEI.

In June 2015, Yale’s administration cut YCEI’s budget by half, without explanation.

"This obviously altered our trajectory from growth and exploration to budget cuts and reductions," Pagani said. "I was not interested in being involved with an institute that did not have the support of the university, and the writing was clearly on the wall last summer."

The administration appointed Bercovici and Jay Ague, a geology professor, as interim co-directors. The scientists attempted to revive YCEI to its former glory. They met with external advisers and prepared a five-year plan that they submitted to the deputy provost of Yale in January.

When they met with the deputy provost last week, they were expecting feedback. They instead got the news that YCEI would be shut down because the university was stretched with other commitments, such as faculty searches, Bercovici said.

Bercovici said the shutdown has triggered a lot of anger among students and faculty at Yale. But he remains hopeful that the administration will replace YCEI with a similar program.

"I think it is an important topic for the next 100 years, and it is a little myopic of the administration to take an institute that was dedicated to this and then first strangle and then kill it," he said. "But hopefully, they’ll replace it with something else."

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