Climate scientist Ben Horton came from England to work in the United States because of the strength of the science here. Now, he’s leaving.
Federal money invested in research and development after World War II funded the work of bright scientists at home and pulled researchers from around the world to American universities and national labs.
One of the areas where the United States built expertise was computerized renderings of the climate, so-called climate models.
“It was because the U.S. was the first country to develop electronic computers,” said Ronald Stouffer, a retired climate scientist. “The first two programs run on computers, one was to predict the trajectory of an artillery shell. And the second thing was to make a weather forecast.”
The early programs that predicted weather evolved to give insights into climate.
American climate labs started with basic research, trying to better understand how climate works.
Today, the models they produce help answer questions like ‘how might our coastlines be affected by rising seas?’
Science — especially climate science — is both global and local. On the one hand, scientific knowledge has no boundaries. On the other, you need the intangible support of specific institutions as well as money to provide the very tangible labs, equipment, and resources, which localize the scientists.
In the U.S., it’s perhaps easy to forget about fundamental infrastructure support because for decades the federal government has been relatively generous in funding research.
But, over time, the percent of the federal budget dedicated to research has decreased, and with science funding up for debate, particularly for climate science, it’s an interesting time to review what that funding actually gets us.
Follow the money
Technology allowed scientists to start making complex models, but it was financial support for those efforts that sustained labs dedicated to modeling, attracted smart scientists and gave them increasingly powerful supercomputers to work on. As a result, American labs dominate the field.
Stouffer says when researchers work on international analyses, as many as 50 percent of the climate scientists involved are from the United States.
And climate science is not the only example of research following the money.
“We have a very clear indication that there’s a relationship between dollars and talent that gravitates to certain disciplines,” said Matt Hourihan, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
During the space race, when money and support for technical fields flowed to universities, they graduated more mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. Students followed again when Congress vowed to tackle cancer and increased funding to the Institutes of Health, about 20 years ago.
“When the NIH [National Institutes of Health] budget doubled, we did have a general expansion of the biomedical research ecosystem. We had increases in graduate students in medical sciences,” Hourihan said.
More people and resources invested in a problem means more chances for solutions.
Retired climate scientist Ronald Stouffer says backing modeling efforts remains important because the models provide the data that society needs in order to make policy decisions on climate change.
Should we act? Do we need to act now?
But with climate change increasingly politicized in the U.S., President Trump has proposed to fund less climate science. So far, Congress hasn’t gone along with the president. The omnibus spending bill that will fund the government until the end of September included increases for research in targeted areas.
However, if the rhetoric turns more forceful, or translates into real cuts, it perhaps won’t be surprising if scientists follow the money to new disciplines, institutions, or just other countries.
Hourihan said any shifts in student interest would be reflected further in the future.
“But what will likely happen more quickly is foreign scientists who traditionally have come here and contributed to American science, American innovation, may see those changes and decide to take their talents elsewhere because other countries of course are very interested in building up their own scientific workforce, their own innovation economies,” he said.
Those opportunities — elsewhere — are emerging.
China and other parts of Asia are developing modeling and science centers with an interest in climate and environment, and there are smart people ready to help.
Ben Horton studies sea level rise. He came from England to work in the U.S. over a decade ago, because of the strength of the science here. Now, he’s leaving.
“It was a very special opportunity,” he said.
A university in Singapore offered him a generous package: a nice bump in salary, a large laboratory specially built for him, and more than $4 million in initial research funds.
“It’s a country that’s based upon banking. But they’ve also started to think about sustainability,” Horton said.
Singapore is a small, wealthy island with little land to lose and lots of fancy real estate. The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean made leaders in the region perk up and pay attention to other threats, like climate change and rising seas.
“And so there has been a growing interest within the country in science, where a lot of research funds are going into understanding the environment and climate and what impacts there will be in this region,” Horton said.
In addition, study of the region has been limited, so there are plenty of unexplored questions to tackle, an intellectual goldmine for an ambitious scientist.
Horton interviewed for the job well before Trump won the election. He said it wasn’t an easy decision to upend his family’s life, but he added, it might be an easier decision for younger scientists to follow the money to faraway places.
In total, he’s bringing seven people, all young post-doctorate students and working scientists, committed to Singapore for years.
Horton said now that Trump is in office; he’s both happy and sad to go.
“Of course leaving an administration that doesn’t believe in what you do and thinks you are a liar, well, it’s good to go. But then the other part of me thinks, ‘Well, you know, maybe I should have stood around for the fight and tried to show how important my science is.'”
Horton got a unique offer, there isn’t a mass exodus of climate scientists heading east. American institutions are still good. But they didn’t get that way by accident. If scientists have made headway in understanding climate — and climate change — it’s because they had support and money.
To study how to address climate change problems in the future, they’ll need money.