I’m an expat US scientist – and I’m returning to Trump’s America

Editor’s note: With the second March for Science scheduled for April 14, The Conversation is publishing articles in which scientists share their perspectives, including this one, on the role of scientists in society.

Donald Trump’s presidency has not been good for science or scientists. Since Trump took office 15 months ago, his administration has proposed to terminate many federally funded research programs and slash funding for others. Trump’s appointees are working to roll back environmental regulations and conservation policies.

The president and some of his Cabinet members have challenged the broad consensus among scientists that human activities are dramatically changing Earth’s climate. And across all policy areas, Trump has shown clear disdain for expertise and facts.

I am a marine conservation scientist studying human impacts on coral reefs and other ocean ecosystems. Given what’s happening in Washington, D.C., the recent move by a handful of prominent U.S. climate scientists who have accepted French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” offer of millions of euros to relocate to France for the rest of Trump’s presidency makes perfect sense.

Their choices make a bold and important statement – one that I strongly support. But I’m going the other way.

I’m an American expat in Australia, where I moved in 1999 as a Fulbright scholar to study how human activities were harming the Great Barrier Reef. Except for four years doing my Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I’ve lived here ever since. During that time, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Australian Research Council and the World Wildlife Fund have funded the majority of my research and salary.

Author Elizabeth Madin observing fish behavior on Palmyra Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Elizabeth Madin, CC BY-ND
But now, after many years abroad, my husband (also a marine biologist) and I are moving back to the United States with our three children. Although this choice may seem counterintuitive in a political climate that is overtly hostile to science and solving environmental problems, I believe that science and scientists are needed in the United States now more than ever before.

Corals – and scientists – under pressure

There’s a practical motive for our shift to the University of Hawaii. Finding two faculty jobs in the same place is rare enough that the universal conundrum of dual-career academic couples like us has its own name: “the two-body problem.”

Practical factors can, however, make it seem professionally unwise for scientists to move to the United States now. Federal research funding, upon which many academic researchers depend, will likely suffer major blows under the Trump administration.

For example, although the National Science Foundation fares relatively well under President Trump’s proposed science budget for fiscal 2019, its funding for research platform construction and scientific instrumentation acquisition would decrease by more than 50 percent if Congress supports the administration’s request. The Environmental Protection Agency’s funding would drop to its lowest level since the early 1990s, and its climate change research funding would be eliminated. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget would be slashed by 20 percent. NOAA’s climate change grants and the Sea Grant College Program, which supports thousands of researchers studying coastal, ocean and Great Lakes topics, would be terminated.