Scientists prepare to fight for their work during ‘the Trumpocene’

By Sarah Kaplan December 15 at 9:49 AM 

SAN FRANCISCO — Activism wasn't originally on the agenda for Stephen Mullens, a meteorologist at the University of Oklahoma. He'd come to the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union — the first major gathering of the world's earth and climate scientists since the election of Donald Trump — to do what one usually does at these sorts of conferences: meet with colleagues, browse posters, listen to panel discussions, wait in long lines for free coffee.

But the dawn of what one researcher called “the Trumpocene” has everyone at AGU reckoning with their role in this new era.

For Mullens, that meant attending his first-ever protest Tuesday. Standing in a crowd of fellow researchers, he listened as Beka Economopoulos, the director of the Natural History Museum, a mobile museum based in New York, implored them to get “out of the labs and into the streets” in response to the president-elect's positions on climate change.

The protest, organized by the activist group and the Natural History Museum, drew several hundred people from the massive AGU conference happening a few blocks away. Some of the scientists donned white lab coats distributed by the organizers. Others held up signs that read “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” “Ice has no agenda — it just melts” and “Protect science.” A few looked nervous when a speaker led the crowd in a chant of “Stand up. Fight back.” But they gamely joined in.

“A lot of us are INTJs; we're engineer people,” Mullens said afterward. “Science is very grueling work, and we have personalities that are more introverted. We're not people who get out there.” He also noted that most researchers are wary of engaging in politics, lest they give the appearance of promoting a particular ideology, rather than the facts.

But the rally organizers were right, he continued: “This is about climate change, but it is also about evidence-based policy . . . With this presidential election, I am motivated to be more of an activist.”

The annual AGU meeting in San Francisco draws more than 20,000 researchers from the earth, atmospheric and space science communities to discuss their research on the natural world. But this year, the shock waves from the political earthquake of the past month touched every part of the conference.

Shortly after the election, the AGU — which represents some 60,000 scientists worldwide — posted a petition urging Trump to swiftly appoint a science adviser (he hasn't yet). The group also scrambled to add a special session to the meeting discussing the prospects for science under the new administration.

“Ever since the election we've been hearing a lot of concerns, anxiety, uncertainty about what this will mean for our members,” said AGU's executive director Christine McEntee. “We thought it was really important to provide a session to be able to say, what do we know today, and also provide an opportunity for some tips and ideas of what they could do to help make sure the voice of science is heard and amplified.”

Often, prominent speakers at AGU referred only obliquely to the fears earth science researchers have about the incoming administration: that funding will be cut, research disregarded and environmental regulations dismantled.

But on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell gave a keynote lecture encouraging government scientists to “fight disinformation” and “speak out” if they feel scientific integrity is being undermined in the new administration.

“Make your voices heard and make them relevant to the people you are talking to,” she said.

During a walk through the conference just before her speech, Jewell stopped at the posters of several researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey. One half-jokingly implored her not to send in her resignation letter. Another asked what she will be doing after inauguration; Jewell said she wasn't sure yet. “But,” she added, “I won't be quiet about the importance of science.”

In the vast poster hall, where scientists present their recent research in a school-science-fair-type setting, there was a current of fear running under the conversations about tree rings and sediment layers.

“Everyone's scared. Everyone's afraid we're going to lose our funding,” Gianna Pantaleo, who studies aquatic biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said Monday. Her poster depicted declines in coral reef diversity due to ocean acidification.

“We're at this pivotal point where we really need to worry about our oceans,” she said. “And it's kind of heartbreaking because you know you're not going to have support” from the government.

A few rows away, Adam Campbell, an American researcher studying the imperiled Ross Ice Shelf of Antarctica at New Zealand's University of Otago, worriedly recapped the events of the past few days with a friend from graduate school. News had just emerged that the transition team sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department asking the agency to provide the names of employees involved in climate science (the DOE rebuffed the request and the Trump transition team has since said it was “not authorized”), and the previous day Trump said that “no one really knows if climate change is real,” on national television.

“You just don't know what's coming,” Campbell said.

“It's a roller coaster,” agreed the friend, an Antarctic researcher at NASA who asked not to be named out of concern for her job. “You can sense it at work. Every week we have meetings and you just think, do we even bring up the scary thing that just happened now?”

As young scientists, their biggest personal concern was funding for research — both rely on NASA's Earth Science program to do their work, and a Trump adviser has suggested that the new administration could cut this part of the space agency.

But they also echoed a worry that's been stated again and again at this conference: Will Trump, who has made statements on climate change and vaccines that contradict the overwhelming scientific evidence, be not just anti-climate, but “anti-science”?

The NASA scientist said the election has made her question not just her engagement with politics, but how she communicates her research with her fellow citizens. “We didn't do a good enough job of making sure people knew this is real,” she said. “I feel responsible.”

She added, “I'm hoping this is a call to arms.”

Already, several groups that represent researchers are gearing up for a fight.

Representatives from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which took part in the rally, offered advice to researchers facing political scrutiny. Last month, the group issued an open letter to Trump urging him to respect scientific integrity. The letter was signed by more than 2,000 scientists, including nearly two dozen Nobel laureates.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal assistance to climate researchers, organized a symposium on legal issues facing scientists, and held one-on-one sessions with researchers who needed advice. The group's executive director, Lauren Kurtz, said she had 10 of these meetings on the first day of the conference — almost as many as she has during a whole week in other years.

The group is also handing out pamphlets titled “Handling Political Harassment and Legal Intimidation: A Pocket Guide for Scientists.”

“We literally thought about it the day after the election,” said Kurtz. “I have gotten a lot of calls from scientists who are really concerned . . . so it’s intended in some ways to be reassuring, to say, 'there is a game plan, we’re here to help you.’ ”

The 16-page guide contains advice on what to do if you're the target of an open records lawsuit (a strategy commonly used by opponents of climate research), who to contact if you're a government researcher who thinks that your work is being suppressed, and how to react if you get hate mail or death threats.

The AGU has its own policy on promoting unpoliticized science and protecting research from political interference, and McEntee said that the group will respond to incidents as they come up.

“I don't think we can just yet say it's all gloom and doom,” she said. “But we're watching. We're concerned, and we're watching.”

Read more:

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What will President Trump mean for science?

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Garrison Keillor on the BUBBLE(s)

Trump voters — it’s not me, it’s you

By Garrison Keillor November 21

Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.

So we have split up. Democrats and Republicans. Mutual loathing. So Thanksgiving is ruined, maybe Christmas. We Hillarians look at strangers in the airport and think, “You did, didn’t you? Yes, you did.” And they know who we are. If I were drowning and calling for help, they would throw me a large rock. If they were drowning, I’d toss them an anvil. Scripture says to love your enemy but it doesn’t say exactly when or how.

Broadway shows will now feel obliged to give lectures on diversity to any prominent Trumpist in the audience. Trumpists will explain, as one woman did, “My vote was my only way to say: I am here and I count.” (People who shoot up theaters may feel the same way.) The Trump faction will boycott chamber music concerts, wine tastings, lectures on Byzantine art and poetry readings, and Hillarians will boycott NFL games, casinos, gun shows and demolition derbies. 

I have relatives who claim to be Christians who voted for Trump, though God clearly told them not to, but my relatives aren’t good at Aramaic. How do I feel about them? I don’t know. I’m thinking, I’m thinking. How would you feel if your favorite cousin told you he believes that white people should be able to live in all-white communities with all-white schools? (They can. Just go to North Dakota.) 

The future of the Supreme Court under President-elect Donald Trump

Play Video2:56
Who will Donald Trump nominate as Justice Antonin Scalia's successor? Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes identifies potential Trump nominees for the Supreme Court. (elyse samuels/The Washington Post)

President Obama, in his role as national sixth-grade civics teacher, believes the office will change the man. Ha. The man is 70. He has no ideas, no beliefs. His philosophy is simple: When he itches, he scratches. 

So let’s talk about dividing the country. Why spend four years glaring at each other? A house divided against itself cannot stand, so let’s make a duplex. The experiment lasted for 150 years after Appomattox and in the end it failed. So let’s bind up our wounds and have an amicable divorce. 

Democrats get the Northeast and the West Coast, plus a few miscellaneous states, and the Democratic cities — the District, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Miami, Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina, Cleveland and so forth. Call it the “Union.” Our capital will, of course, be New York City. Trump takes the former Confederacy and the Corn Belt, and his capital is the bunker deep under the Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the federal government planned to go in the event of a catastrophe, which is basically what we have now. Call that country “Trump Country.” Divvy up the military. Equal access to holy sites. They can come to Arlington Cemetery, the Reagan Library and Trump Tower. We get to go to wildlife refuges, Gettysburg and the birthplaces of authors. We’ll sell the White House for a hotel and make the Capitol a museum, and rent out the office buildings. You take your Supreme Court justices, we’ll take ours.

You can have the flag since you invested so much in flag pins and decals. We’ll make a new flag, blue, with the planet Earth on it. 

This is not that hard, people. Others have done it. Pakistan split from India, Norway from Denmark, Lennon left McCartney. 

Our country believes in competition and free enterprise and now it’s time to create a competition between the Union and Trump Country to see which offers the better life to its people. My money is on the young people flocking to the cities, the centers of economic hustle and bustle such as Seattle, Boston, Washington and Austin, where people seem to thrive on ferment, divergence, multiplicity and a culture of mutual respect and toleration.

But I could be wrong about that. Hitler led Germany out of the confusion of democracy, created good jobs, built up the military and united the country as never before. Germany had lost a war and Hitler made it great again. When he staged Kristallnacht in November 1938 and went after the Jews, it was a huge success, on time and under budget. When he wanted to take over Czechoslovakia, he just went and did it. No problem. Looking back, one can see that his invasion of Poland in 1939 was a bad move, but it might have succeeded. Had Britain sued for peace, the United States was in no mood to intervene. Europe and Russia might be united under one swastika today, and China and Korea united under the rising sun of the emperor of Japan. And us. Three world powers. The United Nations could meet in a breakfast alcove. No journalists present, just three men making deals. Very simple. Tremendous efficiency. Just tremendous. Totally. You better believe it. 

Another musical joke

Pretty Good Joke of the Dayfrom A Prairie Home Companion®

A rabbi was walking along the seashore when he found a glass bottle washed up on the beach. He uncorked the bottle, and out popped a genie. "Thanks! I've been stuck in there for 2000 years. Have three wishes!" said the genie. "Great!" said the rabbi. "Well, I have these grandchildren, and I want them to always be happy..." "No problem," said the genie. "All taken care of. Happy, healthy, rich, it's all there." "Great! Now, there's all this trouble in the Middle East, you see—" The rabbi pulled out a map and showed the genie the extent of the problem. "Sorry," said the genie. "Out of my reach... but you have one more wish." "Well, I'm the part-time conductor of an orchestra, and... the violas just can't play in tune..." The genie stared at the rabbi for a moment, and then said, "Can I please see the map again?" 

From Abigail Cahill, Madison, Wisconsin


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Another Parrot joke! Got any to share?

A man buys a parrot, not knowing that it previously belonged to a foul-mouthed longshoreman. One day, after several weeks of trying to teach the bird not to curse constantly, the man and parrot get into a screaming match. In frustration, the man tosses the parrot into the kitchen freezer and slams the door. After several seconds of terrible swearing there is dead silence. Horrified that he may have killed the bird, the man opens the freezer door. The parrot calmly walks out, perches on the man's shoulder and says, "Please accept my sincere apology for my past behavior. You may be assured that I will never again use offensive or inappropriate language." The man is dumbfounded. He is about to ask the parrot about his change of attitude, when the parrot continues, "If I may ask, what did the chicken do?"  

From Keith Sanders, Chattanooga, Tennessee

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Tristan's dilemma

These negative things you're blocking out, the pain, the hatred, the feelings of neglect and of abuse. A part of you thinks you deserve it. 
That you deserve the solitude that comes with never being loved, the heartache that comes with fooling yourself again and again; the plain chronic tiredness that comes with giving all your love away and having no one to replenish that source. So you made yourself bullet proof so no bullet could ever penetrate you again. 
But darlin, when you block out love bullets, you block out the basis of all things good in the world.

Herb Gart
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another divide exposed by the election, which researchers at the Brookings Institution recently discovered as they sifted the election returns. It has no bearing on the election outcome, but it tells us something important about the state of the country and its politics moving forward.

The divide is economic, and it is massive. According to the Brookings analysis, the less-than-500 counties that Clinton won nationwide combined to generate 64 percent of America's economic activity in 2015. The more-than-2,600 counties that Trump won combined to generate 36 percent of the country's economic activity last year.

Clinton, in other words, carried nearly two-thirds of the American economy.

Leonard Cohen's 25 year old vision

In a letter to his publisher, he said that he was out to reach “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

There were days of fasting to concentrate the mind. There were drugs to expand it: pot, speed, acid. “I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God,” he said years later. “Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”


He opened his eyes, paused awhile. Then he said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”