The race to see who will lead the fight against climate change is heating up.
After President Donald Trump announced in June his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a “Make Our Planet Great Again” program that would bring climate scientists to France and fund their research with $70 million in three- to five-year grants. On Dec. 11, Macron unveiled the first round of recipients. Among the initial 18 scientists selected – 13 of whom are American – is Louis Derry, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in the College of Engineering and faculty fellow with Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.
“Usually people don’t pay too much attention to what people like me do,” Derry said, “And I think the visibility it gives us in this field is good.”
The field, for Derry, is “critical zone” science, which refers to the study of the Earth’s outer layer of skin – from the bottom of groundwater to the tops of trees – where water, atmosphere, ecosystems, soil and rock all meet. Derry’s research focuses on the intersection of geochemistry and hydrology, specifically the kinds of chemical processes that occur in a natural system. By developing new tracers that provide a chemical or isotopic fingerprint of a particular kind of reaction or source, he gains insight into the reaction mechanisms and ultimately the ways water is moving through the system.
“There are 90 elements in the periodic table, there’s a lot of things to play with,” Derry said. “We’re measuring things at the part-per-trillion level. It’s not easy to do that. Or let’s say it’s easy to screw it up in the process. It’s not hard to get it wrong.”
Competition for the grants was high, with 1,822 scientists submitting applications. Derry was a natural fit for the program, having lived in France 25 years ago when he was a postdoc studying erosion and weathering in the Himalayan Mountains, and he’s fluent in French. And in his role as director of the National Science Foundation office for critical zone observatories, he has worked in close partnership with French researchers who have a similar critical zone organization. In fact, Derry was already talking with colleagues in the Paris Institute of Physics of the Globe about a possible collaboration when he learned of Macron’s initiative. So they teamed up and put together a proposal.
“These ideas were percolating for a while,” said Derry, who plans to step down as director of the NSF-CZ in the spring.
The new project will use isotopic tracers to study how the chemistry of streams is controlled, and how it varies with rainfall and the creation of new pathways. Ultimately, the four-year, 1.5 million euro grant will help researchers better model and predict the ways water systems respond to changes in precipitation caused by an increasingly erratic climate. This has long been a “black box” problem for researchers, who lacked the computational tools needed as well as the ability to make the necessary high-precision measurements, according to Derry. Now the technology is available. And thanks to Marcon’s program, so is the funding.
Derry is currently involved with a number of projects at Cornell, from NSF-funded research that studies the chemistry of silicon and aluminum in streams, to an interdisciplinary collaboration with the SRI-Rice program and Matt Reid, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, that examines arsenic in rice and water and was funded by the Atkinson Center, where Reid is also a faculty fellow.
“I tell my graduate students all the time that in order to work in these areas you kind of need to know everything, but you can’t, so you better have smart friends,” Derry said.
While Derry is excited about the opportunities the new project will create – such as promoting the international exchange of researchers and bridging French and U.S. programs – he acknowledges it will be a challenge to juggle his various commitments. He anticipates spending his fall semester teaching and running his lab at Cornell, then living and working in Paris the other half of the year. But it is the current state of research funding in the U.S. that has him truly worried.
“The uncertainty and chaos in the funding and budgeting process through Congress is a significant problem,” he said. “You can’t just turn off these kinds of research efforts and then turn them back on again. You lose the people, the expertise, the infrastructure, the data streams.”
Derry singled out the proposed government shutdown and NSF cuts as specific threats.
“This is particularly a problem for young scientists because they’re trying to start a career. They can’t afford to wait a year or two for the funding situation to clarify. If we don’t do something, this is going to have a long-term impact on science and engineering, and other disciplines as well,” he said. “One of the reasons why the French grant was attractive is it insulates me from that a bit. I’m lucky to be in this situation, but most people aren’t. I just happened to be in the right time and the right place.”
David Nutt is managing editor at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.