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I’m ‘cashing out’ with 186 published journal articles and two books. The superficial reason is that I want to do other things, and no longer need my university salary. This opens up an opportunity for Georgia Tech to make a new hire (see advert).
The deeper reasons have to do with my growing disenchantment with universities, the academic field of climate science and scientists.
At first, I thought the changes I saw at Georgia Tech were due to a change in the higher administration (President, Provost, etc). The academic nirvana under the prior Georgia Tech administration of Wayne Clough, Jean-Lou Chameau and Gary Schuster was a hard act to follow. But then I started to realize that academia and universities nationwide were undergoing substantial changes. I came across a recent article that expresses part of what is wrong: Universities are becoming like mechanical nightingales.
The reward system that is in place for university faculty members is becoming increasingly counterproductive to actually educating students to be able to think and cope in the real world, and in expanding the frontiers of knowledge in a meaningful way (at least in certain fields that are publicly relevant such as climate change).
A deciding factor was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science. Research and other professional activities are professionally rewarded only if they are channeled in certain directions approved by a politicized academic establishment — funding, ease of getting your papers published, getting hired in prestigious positions, appointments to prestigious committees and boards, professional recognition, etc.
How young scientists are to navigate all this is beyond me, and it often becomes a battle of scientific integrity versus career suicide (I have worked through these issues with a number of skeptical young scientists).
Once you detach from the academic mindset, publishing on the internet makes much more sense, and the peer review you can get on a technical blog is much more extensive. But peer review is not really the point; provoking people to think in new ways about something is really the point. In other words, science as process, rather than a collection of decreed ‘truths.’
At this point, I figure that I can reach more people (including students and young researchers) via social media. Do I pretend to have any answers to all this? No, but I hope I am provoking students and scientists to think outside of their little bubble.
"All we can do is be as objective as we can about the evidence and help the politicians evaluate proposed solutions," she says. If that means doing nothing, "I can't say myself that that isn't the best solution."
And this is where Curry parts company most clearly with her peers. For example, the leading scientific organization for earth scientists, the American Geophysical Union, says in a position statement that climate change "requires urgent action." It concludes that despite some uncertainties, there's no scenario where climate change will be inconsequential.
Curry's dissent from this position is as much about the economics as about the science.
"I have six nieces and nephews who have recently graduated from college," she says. "Not easy finding jobs in this economy. Are we going to jeopardize their economic future, and we don't know if they're going to care and if this is going to matter?"
Of course doing nothing to address climate change is actually doing a lot. Carbon dioxide levels are growing fast in the atmosphere and are destined to double or triple over pre-industrial levels. Curry acknowledges that.
"I don't know how concerned I should be about it — on what time scale that might happen, whether that's 100 or 200 years, what societies will be like, what other things are going on with the natural climate," Curry says. "I just don't know what the next hundred or 200 years will hold, and whether this will be regarded as an important issue. I just don't know."
Advocates for action say we shouldn't run that experiment on our planet. Curry's response?
"Well, I think the experiment is going to happen whether people say we should run it or not. We're not going to convince China and India and other developing countries not to burn fossil fuels."
By now, of course, Curry has strayed far from science and deep into public policy. But like all of us, she does have a personal point of view. And hers, at root, is not about science; it's about individualism.
"I walk to work, I drive a Prius, I'm a fanatic about turning lights off and keeping air conditioning high and heating low, so I try to personally minimize my own carbon footprint. But in terms of telling other people what to do, I don't have any big answers."
A pro-Palestinian college professor's tenure offer at the University of Illinois was rescinded after he made anti-Israel tweets about the war in Gaza.