The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activism is a hot topic at the world’s biggest Earth and planetary science conference

The exhibit hall at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union. (Sarah Kaplan/The Washington Post)

NEW ORLEANS — “I’m going to start with some protest 101,” Lee Rowland told the few dozen scientists who filled the windowless meeting room. “You know, basic rules for making sure if you go out and protest, you don’t get arrested.”

Audience members shifted in their seats. They included experts in Martian landscape evolution and glacier melting rates. For many, this information was new.

They’d come to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union — the Comic-Con of the Earth, space and climate sciences. Every year, some 25,000 researchers converge for a five-day bonanza of scientific presentations and free coffee.

But this is 2017. The president has proposed a budget that include massive cuts to science agencies. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency has advocated for a “red team/blue team” debate on climate change science. In April, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in a “March for Science,” chanting slogans like “science cures alternative facts.”

For some AGU attendees this year, activism is on the agenda.

The session “Legal Advice for Scientists Interested in Activism” is one new addition to the conference program. Lauren Kurtz, an attorney with the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, said she suggested it after working with organizers of the March for Science — most of whom were researchers with no previous activism experience.

“The science community is very well meaning,” she said, “but there have been some situations recently … where they made some mistakes that really opened them up to attack.”

During her presentation, Kurtz ticked off a few examples of activism don’ts: Don’t use a public university emails to draft open letters on political issues — because they are considered government records, such emails are subject to open records requests and can be sought by outside groups to harass researchers they disagree with. Don’t wear your NASA apparel to the March for Science or invite colleagues to a protest at the end of the weekly faculty meeting — such activities could run afoul of anti-lobbying restrictions or workplace policies.

A young man in the back of the room raised his hand. “You guys talked a lot about not doing activism activities ‘on the clock,’ ” he said, putting air quotes around the last three words. “I feel like in science there is no clock.” Several people laughed, undoubtedly recalling long nights spent running experiments and drafting research papers.

But the attorneys were serious. “If it has to wait till you get home at 2 a.m. to send that email, that’s what you have to do,” said Rowland, who works for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Audience members continued to pepper Rowland, Kurtz and fellow CSLDF attorney Susan Rosenthal with questions for more than an hour. They ended things only when they had to vacate the room for the next session.

“This is a community that hasn’t historically been super into public protests,” Kurtz said as she packed up her materials. “But we had a huge swell of interest post-election.”

Rowland nodded. “There’s no real room for complacency any more.”

Other additions to the meeting agenda include daily updates on science policy and a discussion of threats to scientists’ independencea workshop on how to visit legislators, and a “call-a-thon” to members of Congress. A table outside the conference’s “sharing science room” — dedicated to sessions on communicating with the public — included cards bearing helpful reminders of how a nonscientist might interpret academic jargon. Pro tip: To most people, “bonding” does not describe an electrostatic connection between atoms. At a session added to the agenda at the last minute, on the outlooks for federal agencies, the National Science Foundation’s geosciences head, William Easterling, attempted to assuage concerns about likely budget cuts: “Remember that in spite of the angst . . . life will continue no matter what,” he said.

“What we’re seeing again this year at the meeting is fear and anxiety, inside and outside the U.S.” said AGU  Executive Director Christine McEntee. She cited proposed cuts to research funding, skepticism about climate science  and politicians’ overall fondness for the phrases “fake news” and “alternative facts” as causes for concern.

“We’re hearing from more and more AGU researchers wanting to be better equipped to speak, to advocate,” she said.

The attendees at Kurtz’s legal-advice session skewed much younger than those at other sessions, and many had already dipped a toe into activism. Emilie Sinkler, a graduate student at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, has been writing letters to her representatives. Alistair Hayden, the man who complained that science had no “clock,” used to lead the graduate student government at Caltech and helped organized a walkout in protest of a proposed tax on tuition.

In the cavernous poster hall, where researchers stand in front of 4-by-6-foot placards displaying their research, glaciologists Adam Greeley and Tyler Sutterley were surprised to hear that the conference offered so many policy-related sessions.

“I've been so focused on the science,” Sutterley said.

Greeley said he’s reticent to speak out about politics; like many of his colleagues, he’s leery of anything that might make his work seem less objective. He attended the March for Science this April “because it felt like a safe thing. That was just supporting science,” he said. “But I feel like that’s a unique one . . . A lot of scientists are just heads down.”

The congressional call-a-thon drew no participants on the conference's first day, and it wasn’t till the hour-long session Tuesday  was almost over that Erin McDuffie, a 27-year-old graduate student from the University of Colorado at Boulder, walked in.

“I’ve never done a call like this before,” she admitted. But she was worried about a provision in House Republicans’ tax plan that would tax graduate students’ tuition waivers — which are typically worth more money than students actually earn. The proposal could increase McDuffie’s taxes by as much as 400 percent.

Two AGU public affairs staffers sat beside McDuffie, offering tips as she drafted her pitch, then looking up the phone number for Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) After a final glance at her notes, McDuffie dialed.

“Hi, I’d like to speak to a staffer who is working on the tax plan?” She waited, then launched into her spiel. “Graduate students are the backbone of our current scientific workforce. Mm hmm. Okay. I’m hoping I can count on the senator’s support.”

The following evening, House and Senate Republicans announced that they had come to an agreement on a final version of their tax bill. The proposed graduate student tax had been dropped.

“I’m relieved,” McDuffie said. But she was holding onto the phone numbers for Bennet and her other representatives, just in case. “There’s still a lot of other things I have opinions about.”

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