New climate change program lures 5 Colorado scientists to France

Author: Marianne Goodland - December 12, 2017 - Updated: January 5, 2018

Arnold Schwarzenegger and France’s President Emmanuel Macron take a selfie with young people in front of the Eiffel Tower during the One Planet Summit, Paris, on Dec. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)

That giant sucking sound coming from Boulder is the sound of four leading scientists departing for Europe, among the winners of a new program intended to lure climate change experts from the United States to research laboratories in France. A fifth Coloradan, based at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, is also among the grant winners. 

Shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Treaty, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a climate program he called “Make Our Planet Great Again,” an obvious dig at Trump’s signature motto. Trump has repeatedly rejected the idea that climate change is man-made.

Trump’s decision on Paris prompted Macron to send the message to climate change scientists from around the world that France welcomes their work, offering four-year grants worth an estimated 1.5 million euros each, or about $1.8 million US. According to Science, Macron’s biggest target is “disgruntled” U.S. scientists unhappy with the Trump administration’s views on climate change.

More than 1,800 scientists, with about two-thirds from the United States, applied for the grants, signalling a potential scientific exodus to more science-friendly nations and putting the U.S. reputation for top science research in climate change at risk. The magazine Pacific Standard reported in 2014 that the U.S. reputation for quality science research is largely based on international scientists who come to this country to work, and four of the five leaving Colorado originally came from other countries as postdoctoral fellows.

Monday, the French government announced the first class of 18 grant winners, with 13 from the United States, including the five from Colorado. Another scientist formerly from Texas, Nobel Prize winner Camille Parmesan, who now works in the United Kingdom, called Macron’s initiative “absolutely fabulous, and a very appropriate response to Trump pulling out of the Paris accords.”

No other American state is losing as many scientists to the French program as is Colorado, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Gov. John Hickenlooper, in a statement to Colorado Politics, said “Colorado’s loss is the world’s gain. We are not surprised that almost 40 percent of the French ‘climate scholars’ are from Colorado. We are happy for their recognition. But we also hate it. Colorado’s remarkable success is in no small way the result of our talent, and the innovation created on a regular basis.”

Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union told Colorado Politics that the news is “very troubling. We apprecaite the French government offering financial support for this very critical area of research,” but at the same time the departures will be damaging to the US enterprise on climate change research. The century-old AGU promotes Earth and space science research and is the world’s leading non-profit scientific association with 60,000 members in 137 countries.

France’s climate plan aims to make the country carbon-neutral by 2050.

A second round of 50 grants, in collaboration with Germany, is expected in in 2018.

McEntee noted Colorado’s strong research on climate change and the concentration of scientists who work on that issue in the Centennial State. “But this is broader than one state or a red or blue issue. It’s very troubling when scientists feel they can’t get supported for the work they’ve been engaged in for some time, or being able to speak out about scientific results.”

The Coloradans selected:

– Joost de Gouw is a scientist with CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). He told Colorado Politics his research focuses on organic compounds in the atmosphere, released from fuels, fires and vegetation. He has been at CU-Boulder since 1994, shortly after earning his PhD from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, his native country. He is a two-time co-recipient of Gov. Hickenlooper’s award for high-impact research, in 2012 and 2014.

de Gouw, 50, said his work has been funded in the past by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The EPA funding is now on hold, and the status of funding from the other federal agencies is uncertain, he said. de Gouw’s status with CU-Boulder has yet to be decided. He said will head to France next month to begin working out the details of his transfer to the Institute of Researches on Catalysis and Environment in Lyon (IRCELYON).

de Gouw said the United States is “stuck” in the debate over climate change, but “the reality is that we need to get beyond that and understand how the increasing pressures on our resources translate into having a livable planet.”.

– Barbara Ervens has been a scientist at CIRES since 2002 and holds a joint appointment with NOAA. She joined CIRES shortly after receiving a PhD from the University of Leipzig, Germany. 

Ervens’ research focus is organic aerosol processes in aqueous aerosols and fog droplets, and ice microphysics, both important in climate change modeling. She will join the Institute of Chemistry of Clermont Ferrand. She was unavailable for comment.

– Christopher Cantrell has been a senior research scientist with CU-Boulder’s Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences department since 2013. He previously spent nearly 20 years with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder and received a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Michigan.

Cantrell’s research deals with finding new techniques to quantify the composition of the troposphere (the lowest layer of the earth’s atmosphere) and improving the understanding of atmospheric chemical processes.

Cantrell, 62, told Reuters Monday that his decision to move to France is a response to a “gradual decline in public funds in his field, which he did not expect to get better under Trump. ‘I’ve been disappointed with this whole administration, as to how they … view the world of science and policy-making,’” Cantrell told Reuters. “‘I wouldn’t say I‘m coming to France to get away from the Trump administration, but it was an opportunity that wasn’t available in the United States.’” He did not return a call for comment.

– Another NCAR scientist, Benjamin Sanderson, will join the Climate, Environment, Couplings and Uncertainties Laboratory in Toulouse, France. Sanderson’s work focuses on risk assessment in climate change. He holds a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of Oxford, UK and he is a lead author for the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Sanderson has been a vocal critic on the Trump’s administration’s views on climate change, writing last May for The Washington Post that if the Paris accord fails, a goal of reducing global temperatures by 2 degrees could be rendered unachievable. “Temperature records of the past will be yearly events, most years will likely have an ice-free Arctic, and extreme precipitation events are projected to markedly increase,” Sanderson wrote. “By withdrawing from Paris, the United States would be betting on a future in which climate change is going to go away, and that is one thing we are sure is not going to happen.” He did not return a call for comment.

– Philip Schulz will head from Golden’s NREL to the Research and Development Institute for Photovoltaic Energy in Paris. He obtained a doctorate from RWTH Aachen University in Germany and is a postdoctoral fellow at NREL, joining the renewable lab in 2014. His research focus is technology in solar cells, which is funded by the Department of Energy’s SunShot initiative. The project was a signature initiative on solar energy, launched by President Barack Obama in 2011. In September, the Department of Energy announced the initiative had achieved its primary goal of reducing the cost of solar to 6 cents per kilowatt, a goal that was originally to be completed by 2020. At the same time, the agency revealed it would put up $82 million in funding for early-stage research on solar power electronics and other technologies. He was unavailable for comment.

The exodus of the Colorado scientists may have financial implications beyond their departures. The uncertain status of scientific funding at the federal level was cited by two of the CU scientists headed to France.

Terri Fiez, vice chancellor for research and innovation at CU-Boulder, told Colorado Politics that climate science is one of the university’s core research areas. “We will continue to support the work of our scientists, as the research they do every day sheds light on critical issues facing our collective future, including national security, infrastructure planning, energy and human health.”

In August, the Trump administration released a four-page document that outlined its research and development budget priorities. Those priorities emphasized spending in military and security research and development but omitted any mention of funding for environmental science or climate change.


Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.