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Careers in Climate Change Research: Feature Index

(Bill Sta. Clara, International Rice Research Institute)

Opportunities are expanding for natural and social scientists who wish to take on the scientific and practical challenges posed by climate change. That's the message of the experts interviewed for this feature.

If early-career scientists “embark on careers in this field today, they [will] only find greater and greater excitement as they progress,” says Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In its February 2009 report, Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC) urged the United States Global Change Research Program (formerly the United States Climate Change Science Program, CCSP) to strengthen research on the vulnerability of ecosystems and societies as well as research on adaptation and mitigation measures. NRC called for an “end-to-end” approach going “from understanding causes and processes to supporting actions needed to cope” with likely impacts on natural disasters, freshwater availability, agriculture and food security, ecosystems management, human health, and economics. “Addressing these issues requires the integration of disciplinary and multidisciplinary research, natural and social science, and basic research and practical applications,” the authors wrote.

Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), predicts that future opportunities for scientists who wish to study climate change will parallel NRC's “end-to-end” recommendation. “There is a growing need for modeling activities by which we can assess the impacts of climate change in the different parts of the world,” Pachauri says. And beyond a basic understanding, “we need to understand how to adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he continues. “This is multidisciplinary research because you would have to look at technical and scientific responses. You would need to look at institutions' responses, policies that have to be put in place, and how do you mobilize communities, how do you create infrastructure by which adaptation becomes possible. ... Those are things that will require a lot of effort.”

“One of the real recognitions of the past decade or two is that the answers to the challenges that we face are at the boundaries between the disciplines and that in fact much of the most exciting science is also taking place at the boundaries between the disciplines,” says David Blockstein, a senior scientist with the National Council for Science and the Environment, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes science-based environmental decision-making. “And it makes this all a tremendous challenge for the educational system because the educational system is structured ... on disciplines, and the interdisciplinary mechanisms are generally quite weak.”

In this feature ...

Research and education institutions on both sides of the Atlantic are taking on the challenge of training a new generation of scientists. In her contribution to this feature, frequent Science Careers contributor Siri Carpenter describes how new programs are emerging to help scientists prepare for the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of climate change research while also ensuring a solid disciplinary grounding.

These same climate change imperatives are likely to require scientists to acquire, often informally, a unique and challenging blend of skills. Science Careers Contributing Editor for South Europe Elisabeth Pain gathered advice from a range of experts on how to prepare to work in the field.

Entering an increasingly interdisciplinary field such as climate change does carry some risk. “There's always risk in going across traditional boundaries. It should be recognized that our reward systems are not completely in place, that there are cultural barriers that are working against individuals who are doing something new, and so it's not for the timid people,” Blockstein says. “You have to be willing, like the turtle, to stick your neck out a little bit to make progress, but also ... you have to have a hard shell to be able to ... occasionally retreat back into your shell for your protection.”

Still, Pachauri says, “The challenge of climate is not going to go away. If anything, it's going to become far more serious.” It follows that early-career scientists who “embark on careers in this field today, [will] only find greater and greater excitement as they progress,” Pachauri adds. “I think this is a virgin territory where opportunities are going to grow very rapidly.”

Climate change career resources

Below we list some courses and funding opportunities for scientists interested in entering climate change research. What training you need next depends on your background and the questions you want to tackle, so these opportunities should be taken as examples of what training is available. We also include some recommendations for further reading regarding issues like interacting with policy-makers and communicating to the public.


Through its Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) supports interdisciplinary graduate courses at various universities around the nation. Find a program related to climate change.

The annual, weeklong DISsertations initiative for the advancement of Climate Change ReSearch Symposium (DISCCRS) helps scientists hone interdisciplinary skills and build collaborative networks. In addition to staging numerous skills-training and teamwork exercises, DISCCRS organizers put participants' dissertation abstracts into a searchable database that scholars can use to build collaborative networks.

The nongovernmental System for Analysis, Research and Training (START) program works in developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific to help environmental scientists build interdisciplinary and translational research skills through fellowships, workshops, and training institutes.

The Swiss National Science Foundation's National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Climate, which hosts atmospheric physicists, historians, biologists, and economists, runs the International NCCR Climate Summer School. Next year's school, “Adaptation and Mitigation: Responses to Climate Change,” will explore topics such as greenhouse gas emission scenarios, the economics of climate change, adaptation and mitigation measures, and climate policies. Grants are available for students from developing countries.

As part of its 2010 Theme-of-the-Year Program on mathematicians and climate, the Institute for Mathematics Applied to Geosciences (IMAGe) in Boulder, Colorado, offers lectures, workshops, and a Summer Graduate School on Mathematics of Climate Change opened to mathematics or geosciences Ph.D. students.

Graduate training programs related to climate change are too numerous to list and can easily be found via a Google search. The best way to figure out where to study, however, is to decide what kind of research you're most interested in, then figure out who the leaders are in that area of research. Contact those people and their host institutions to learn about opportunities for graduate research training.


Numerous federal agencies and nonprofit organizations offer postdoctoral fellowships appropriate for climate change scientists with interdisciplinary or translational interests:

- International Research & Exchanges Board Individual Advanced Research Opportunities for policy-relevant research (Eastern Europe and Eurasia)

- National Academies Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Internship Program

- National Air and Space Museum Postdoctoral Earth and Planetary Sciences Fellowship program

- NSF International Research Fellowship Program

- NSF Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowships Program

- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

- NOAA Postdocs Applying Climate Expertise (PACE) Fellowship Program

- Resources for the Future's Gilbert F. White Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

- U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program

- The National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE)'s short-term positions in research labs, federal agencies, non-profit organizations, and businesses in its Campus to Careers program

Further reading

NCSE is now engaged in an NSF-funded project on creating a Climate, Adaptation, and Mitigation e-Learning (CAMEL) community.

NCSE's David Blockstein's offers advice on How to Lose Your Political Virginity while Keeping Your Scientific Credibility–in other words, how to interact with the political process and policy-makers while minimizing the risk.

A paper first-authored by Judith Curry, Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, is a case study of the impact of politics, the media, and the Internet on the scientific process.

The DISsertation initiative for the advancement of Climate Change ReSearch (DISCCRS) offers a wealth of advice in its career resources.

Photo (top): Residents of Los Baños and Bay towns, along the coast of Laguna de Bay and about 60 kilometers south of Manila. In September 2009, Typhoon Ondoy dumped record rainfall on Metro Manila and surrounding provinces, including Laguna—a month's worth of rain in just 6 hours, which caused reservoirs, lakes, and waterways overflowing to an extent not seen in decades; part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute, (Bill Sta. Clara, International Rice Research Institute)

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