Climate scientists may be self-censoring in order to get their work funded through government grants.
New data released by NPR this week shows that grants and research proposals from the National Science Foundation (NSF) using the term “climate change” in their title or summary have dropped by 40 percent this year when compared to 2016.
That’s only 302 grants using the term this year compared to 520 last year, NPR reported.
And according to researchers, that reduction might have everything to do with a political climate that’s hostile to their work.
Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor of paleoecology at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, said in an interview Wednesday that the decrease is likely a self-preservation tactic. Scientists know that work concerning climate research is closely watched and certain terms flagged.
Gill said scientists are “often coached to talk about climate change without talking about climate change.” So they communicate more specifically and avoid the politically-charged term.
“You want to protect the funding. You want to do the research. You want to avoid spurious lawsuits,” she said, “but you also want to be make sure the work you are doing is impactful.”
Gill worries that the balancing act will eventually eliminate climate change from the national dialogue, all because of this “language game.” Even though the specific focus areas within climate research will persist, like extreme precipitation, drought, effects on animal behavior, and more, the overall umbrella term might morph over time.
The NSF, with a budget of $7.5 billion in , is one of the largest funders of climate science research in the U.S.
An NSF spokesperson said the organization doesn’t comment on outside analyses, so they wouldn’t weigh in on the declining use of the term.
To NPR, the same spokesperson added, “NSF takes no position on the language used by researchers to describe physical processes and outcomes if the merit review process judges the language to be appropriate.”
Not everyone thinks that scientists are censoring themselves to work around a hostile administration, however.
Texas A&M University atmospheric sciences professor Andrew Dessler has an alternate hypothesis of what’s happening with the climate change proposals. He thinks the conversations and research about climate change are changing and becoming more specific as the science advances.
There’s more to discover from narrower fields, such as “extreme weather,” than the more all-encompassing concept of climate change.
“I’m skeptical that people are self-censoring,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. Instead, the focus is shifting. Dessler said he would have no qualms about submitting a research grant proposal using the term “climate change.”
NSF grants aren’t the only space where “climate change” is slowly vanishing because of political pressure from the current administration. Look to the U.S. Department of Energy, which earlier this year asked researchers to remove “climate change” and “global warming” from project descriptions seeking funding approval.
Or there’s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which removed its extensive climate change website in April and has not fully restored it since. Both EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and Energy Secretary Rick Perry reject the mainstream climate science evidence showing that global warming is largely human-caused.
No matter what you call it or how hard you scrub government websites, the manifestations of climate change, with changing weather patterns, hotter temperatures, drought, and sea level rise, are still happening, and will only get worse with time.