In France, American Scientists Are Trying to ‘Make Planet Great Again’

Carol Lee collaborates with University of Montpellier colleagues researching how tiny plankton cope in an ever-saltier Mediterranean sea and a freshwater-infused Baltic one. From the foothills of the French Pyrenees, Camille Parmesan experiments with cutting-edge climate modeling, hoping it may offer clues for future biodiversity conservation.

Both biologists have pulled up stakes from previous posts, counting among U.S. scientists who are responding to the Trump administration’s upcoming withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement with their feet.  

“I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” said Lee, citing colleagues who have headed to Europe and China. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”  

“I know quite a lot of really top-notch scientists who have just moved to other countries,” says Lee, pictured with a colleague. “And a big, alarming trend is there are a lot of very smart people who are not moving to the U.S.”

Lee’s assessment follows numerous allegations that the U.S. government is undermining climate and other research on multiple fronts, from shrinking funding and shutting programs to diminishing science’s role in policymaking. Hundreds of scientists have left their jobs, according to a recent New York Times article, although it’s unclear how many have headed overseas.  

U.S. officials offer a different picture. A State Department statement issued ahead of December’s climate talks in Madrid, for example, said the government remained committed to research and innovation. It credited advances, ranging from renewables to “transformational” coal technologies, for allowing the United States to simultaneously reduce emissions, protect the environment and grow the economy.  

Yet these days Europe is more often seen as the climate leader. Still, it faces its own set of challenges. The European Union’s climate-fighting efforts vary sharply by member state, with countries like Poland still heavily reliant on coal.  

Moreover, a recent study by the European Investment Bank finds the EU must invest massively more in research and development to a meet a new and ambitious 2050 goal of zero net emissions. Indeed, it finds Europe lags behind the US and China in climate change mitigation investments as a share of GDP.  

French President Emmanuel Macron holds a sign with the slogan 'Make our planet great again' as he attends the 'Tech for Planet'…
French President Emmanuel Macron holds a sign with the slogan ‘Make our planet great again’ as he attends the ‘Tech for Planet’ event at the ‘Station F’ start-up campus ahead of the One Planet Summit in Paris on Dec. 11, 2017.

French grants

In France, Lee and Parmesan count among more than a dozen U.S. scientists benefiting from generous research grants under President Emmanuel Macron’s Make the Planet Great Again program, a direct rebuttal to Washington’s departure from the Paris pact. Yet Macron himself is criticized at home for failing to match climate-fighting rhetoric with action, while experts say French science overall is seriously underfunded.  

“It’s very clear there isn’t enough investment in France, and we’ll need to concentrate on this in the years to come,” says Stephane Blanc, who heads the MOPGA initiative, pointing however to upcoming legislation aimed to significantly boost research funding.  

Launched in mid-2017, Macron’s initiative — known more prosaically as MOPGA — offers three- to five-year matching grants of up to $1.7 million for cutting-edge environment research on areas that also include biodiversity loss and sustainable agriculture. American and formerly U.S.-based scientists dominate the 41 grantees, who also include French and other Europeans. Germany has rolled out a similar, but more modest initiative.  

“When Macron made that announcement, I thought ‘I’m applying for that,'” says Lee, who had previously collaborated with Montpellier University.  

Her grant of nearly $900,000 allows her to hire graduate students for research into how plankton can adapt to changes in salinity and temperature. Her two targets are witnessing diametrically opposite climate-affected impacts; while the Mediterranean is increasing in salinity, ice melt is injecting a mass of freshwater into the Baltic Sea that promises to decimate key local species like cod.  

“I’m looking at the base of the food chain, because that’s so important for maintaining everything — that’s the little guys, the copepods,” she says of the plankton.  

At home in Madison, Wisconsin, Lee launched a more personal climate change fight, going vegetarian and powering her house with wind. But she does not see enough action on a national level.  

“I feel like scientists are getting ignored in the United States, that what we say doesn’t matter right now, and that is incredibly distressing,” she says.  

In France, by contrast, she is confident her research will be published and widely disseminated.  

“Somebody is going to listen to us,” she says. “In Europe and elsewhere.”  

FILE - In this Sept.5 2017 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot meet…
FILE – In this Sept.5, 2017 file photo, French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot meet with NGOs to discuss climate and environment at the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Modeling change  

For Parmesan, France amounted a Eurostar train ride away from her previous research posting in Britain. During her career, she has given talks at the White House, testified before Congress and collected prestigious awards for her research, which includes helping to solidify the science behind the 2°C-degree global warming cap set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  

“I think I’ve done my thing about the fact we need to reduce carbon emissions,” Parmesan says. “What I’m trying to do now is go more towards what we do about it.”

Today, she works at a French research station in the tiny southwestern commune of Moulis, trying to apply economic-style simulations to biodiversity conservation under a rapidly changing climate.  

“It’s really tricky, because there’s a lot of uncertainty,” she says. “How do you come up with a conservation plan? What do you preserve and where to you preserve in the face of all this?”

She describes a recent slew of emissions and global warming records as yet more grim data points on a now-clear trajectory.  But she is alarmed the United States is not leading the response.  

“A lot of the best science has come out of the United States, but that’s going away,” she says.  

While some U.S. colleagues are staying put in their jobs, mindful of family and financial constraints, others are not, she says.  

“If they’re old enough they’re retiring, if they’re young enough they’re getting the hell out of there,” Parmesan said, adding a number are asking her about research options in Europe.  

She is worried about the future, but energized by the rising tide of youth climate activists.  

“Young people will see a tremendous degradation of their lifestyle — everyone who reads the science knows that,” Parmesan says. “So I’m really excited that age group is finally getting charged up, and demanding these older politicians do something.”

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