Science Policy & Funding News

Prestigious Climate-Related Fellowships Rescinded

Reduced program is one of several that usually support climate science postdoctoral research but have eliminated or suspended funding opportunities.

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Last March, Katie Travis, who was finishing a Ph.D. in atmospheric chemistry at Harvard University, got what seemed like a major boost for her budding career: She had been selected as one of eight fellows for the 2017 class of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) prestigious Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. But the announcement came with an ominous caveat—NOAA program managers did not actually have the money in hand.

This past August, Travis learned that her fellowship offer had been rescinded because of budget cuts. “This was the first grant I wrote myself,” she said. “It was really validating for me to be selected, which is why it’s so crushing that the program ended up the way it did.”

Three other scientists chosen for the fellowships also found their offers revoked. With only four fellows ultimately accepted in 2017, the prestigious program is now funding fewer researchers than it ever has since it was launched in 1991. At least two other postdoctoral fellowship programs in the United States for climate scientists have also been defunded or put on hold, giving young climate scientists fewer options for continuing their careers.

Illustrious Alumni

The Climate and Global Change (CGC) program has built a reputation for preparing scientific leaders, said emeritus climate researcher Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., who served on the program’s steering committee in the 1990s. Some 90% of the program’s 218 alumni have gone on to academic positions, according to program documents. Alumni include Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York; Heidi Cullen, chief scientist for the nonprofit organization Climate Central in Princeton, N.J.; and Jeff Severinghaus, a Scripps paleoclimatologist recently elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Graduate students who aim to participate in the program team up with professors at host institutions to coauthor proposals. Fellowships provide 2 years of salary and benefits and funds to travel to meetings and a summer institute attended by other fellows and alumni. The program’s annual budget, which has fluctuated around $2 million, “is among the best dollars NOAA spends in terms of return on investment,” said Somerville.

Nancy Williams samples seawater from below the surface of the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska. 
Nancy Williams samples seawater from below the surface of the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska. She measured carbon dioxide content and alkalinity in hundreds of seawater samples on board the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown as part of an effort led by Laurie Juranek at Oregon State University to study late summer productivity in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Credit: Michael Wojahn

Seeta Sistla, a professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and a 2013 fellow, said having independent funding enabled her to jump from studying the Arctic as a graduate student to researching agroforestry in the tropics during her postdoc at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Two years later, the fellowship’s name recognition and connections helped her land several faculty position offers. “It opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened,” she said, “both in terms of my research career and also in how I was seen when I was on the job market.”

The program receives more than 100 applications annually. Program managers anticipated making eight awards in 2017, consistent with recent years, but were told by officials in NOAA’s Climate Program Office in August that they could make only four, Meg Austin, a staff member at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), told Eos. The CGC program makes up a small part of the Boulder, Colo.–based nonprofit’s portfolio, which also includes managing the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.

“It was extremely disappointing, and it still is, to know that the current federal policy and the budgetary constraints, whether they’re real or just a chilling effect, are directly hurting my career,” said Nancy Williams, who, like Travis, was selected but ultimately not funded. Williams is finishing her Ph.D. work at Oregon State University in Corvallis and has secured a National Research Council (NRC) fellowship that will fund her postdoc at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, where she will study carbon exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere. But she will miss networking with other CGC fellows, she said—and the NRC annual salary is some $10,000 lower. “That’s a lot of money when you have student loans to pay.”

Diversity Takes a Hit

Especially troubling to Abigail Swann, an ecologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is that three of the rescinded offers were to women, whereas the four who were funded are all men. That makes the 2017 class the only one in the program’s 27-year history other than the first to be all male.

Swann and two program alumni wrote a letter—since signed by more than 100 program alumni, hosts, selection committee members, and others—expressing concern that the lack of diversity makes it even harder for female geoscientists to bridge the “PhD-to-Professor gap,” a precarious career stage when many women scientists leave the field. They also noted that NOAA itself has committed to increasing diversity.

Austin said the eight selected applicants were ranked, and when the selection committee learned the funding had been reduced, program managers decided to fund the top four. She noted that almost 40% of all program fellows have been women. But she added that the 2017 outcome was “unfortunate.”

The selection committee members discussed gender diversity and even read recent reports on implicit bias while reviewing applications, said David McGee, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) paleoclimatologist who chaired the 2017 committee. In addition to gender, the committee strives for a geographically diverse class that represents different areas of climate and global change science, he added. He said that committee members did not intend to rank their selections, and he believes there was a “misunderstanding” with program managers at UCAR. McGee signed the letter and said he hopes the program adds gender diversity as an explicit goal.

Murky Future?

The program’s future is uncertain, however. Recruiting for the 2018 class would normally have begun last August, but because of uncertainty surrounding the 2018 budget, application materials were posted just this week. A NOAA spokesperson said that although agency officials continue to see the program as “important,” because of budget uncertainties, “NOAA’s conservative plan is to award 4 fellowships this year as well.”

Katie Travis in her home office. Credit: Katie Travis
Katie Travis in her home office. Credit: Katie Travis

The delay and uncertainty compound an already difficult funding situation for early-career climate scientists, Travis said. In addition to the CGC program, a smaller NOAA program, Postdocs Applying Climate Expertise, did not accept any fellows in 2017 and will not in 2018. What’s more, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program that has funded 45 postdocs in atmospheric and geospace sciences since August 2014, including many who study climate and global change, has not accepted any new applications since January 2016. Amanda Adams, a program director at NSF, said the program is “paused” while the agency assesses its effectiveness and that the hiatus is not related to budgetary considerations.

Postdocs can also receive support from their institutions or from the professors with whom they work. But funding postdocs is “really, really difficult” for faculty, says McGee, because it requires having a large grant or other source of money to pay their salary and benefits. Such funding typically requires postdocs to do research aligned with an existing project, rather than develop their own.

“Graduate students are probably always somewhat concerned” about funding, said Swann, “but I think they’re feeling extra stressed right now.”

Despite the challenging environment, Travis still hopes to land a job at a university or federal agency. She got a break when MIT, her current institution, stepped in with a year of support after the NOAA offer fell through. But that money runs out in June, and she still needs to secure another source of funds. “It made starting my postdoc really stressful—I immediately felt like I had to start applying for funding again,” she said. “It slowed my research down for sure.”

—Gabriel Popkin (email: [email protected]), Freelance Science Journalist

Citation: Popkin, G. (2018), Prestigious climate-related fellowships rescinded, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO091105. Published on 19 January 2018.
© 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0