Promising to ‘Make Our Planet Great Again,’ Macron lures 13 U.S. climate scientists to France

 In U.S.

Former secretary generals of the United Nations Kofi Annan, left, and Ban Ki-moon, right, sit across from French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Dec, 11, 2017. (Pool photo by Michel Euler via Reuters)

What initially looked like an impish dig at President Trump by French President Emmanuel Macron over climate policy has turned into a concrete plan.

First, when the Trump administration proposed slashing federal science budgets and then, on June 1, when Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord, Macron took to social media to offer (in perfect English) to greet with open arms — and research dollars — American scientists worried about the political climate as well as global warming.

Macron urged worried climate scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs to see France as a “second homeland” and to come work there because “we all share the same responsibility: make our planet great again.”

Two years after the Paris climate accord was adopted, the French government is unveiling a list of 18 “laureates” — 13 of them working in the United States — who have won a “Make Our Planet Great Again” competition for research grants awarded for as long as five years. They include professors and researchers at Cornell University, Columbia University, Stanford University and other institutions.

“For me, the chance to work on some very exciting science questions with my French colleagues and not be so dependent on the crazy stuff that goes on in Congress and with the current administration is honestly very attractive,” Louis A. Derry, a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell, said in an interview. “But it can be embarrassing to try and explain what is going on at home right now.”

Derry lamented a “devaluing of science by this administration.” And he said the tax plan Congress is considering would have a “catastrophic” effect on graduate students. “I don’t think the country is well served by this,” he said.

The French government’s offer attracted 1,822 applications, nearly two-thirds of them from the United States. France’s research ministry pruned that to 450 “high-quality” candidates for long-term projects. A second round of grants will be awarded in the partnership with Germany.

Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change science and policy at Britain’s University of East Anglia and director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, helped the French government choose this round of grant winners.

About half of the applicants had been working for more than 12 years after earning their PhDs, Le Quéré said. The average age was 45, she said, and “most are in the middle of productive careers.”

“I jumped at the promise of a five-year contract!” said Alessandra Giannini, a professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute who studies the effects of warming oceans on Africa’s Sahel region.

She saw Macron’s video and, weary of short-term grants and worried about growing budget pressures in the United States, applied.  “I am a midcareer scientist almost entirely supported by federal research grants. My contract with the university is renewed yearly contingent on funding,” she said in an email.

Macron’s Monday announcement came at “Station F,” in some ways a symbol of his vision for France. A converted rail station in a largely forgotten corner of Paris, it bills itself as the world’s largest start-up facility, a place where those with big ideas can roll up their sleeves and get to work. Although the project was launched before Macron came to power, it has become an early embodiment of his pro-capitalistic presidency.

“France has even risen to the top rank in Europe in terms of fundraising by start-ups — something we would not have imagined a few years ago,” said Roxanne Varza, director of Station F. “The current government is also very attentive and wishes to support us more than ever. We even see entrepreneurs leaving Silicon Valley to come or return to create their start-up in France.”

Many of the climate scientists moving from the United States have spent time in France or are from Europe originally. Crucially, many already have some degree of facility with the French language. Some will split their time to keep their academic chairs in the United States.

Derry, a former mineral and petroleum exploration geologist, has been at Cornell since 1994 and will split his time between there and the Paris Institute of Earth Physics, part of the French National Center for Scientific Research. He studied in France in the early 1990s and has previously returned for six-month stints.

He has studied the emission and absorption of carbon dioxide in the Himalayas and other areas where the Earth’s tectonic plates have collided to create mountain ranges.

He is engaged in “critical zone” research, which integrates studies of biological, chemical and geological changes from Earth’s surface through the top of the tree canopy. He plans to focus his efforts on how water moves through a watershed; similar research is going on in France.

Derry is the director of the National Science Foundation office for nine critical zone observatories. It is unclear how they will be funded beyond mid-2018. “That’s a big concern for all of us, as the infrastructure, both hardware and human, can’t just be shut down and turned on again,” he said. People working on the projects “are quite naturally looking elsewhere for work.”

Camille Parmesan, a biologist who teaches at Britain’s University of Plymouth and the University of Texas at Austin, also won a grant and will move her research to an ecology center in Moulis, France.

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