When U.S.-based scientist Christopher Cantrell heard President Donald Trump pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, he did not imagine that six months later he would be shaking the French leader's hand and starting anew in France.
Hours after Trump’s announcement in June, President Emmanuel Macron made a dramatic TV announcement in English, responding that he would not give up the fight against climate change and adding in a dig: “Make our planet great again.”
That later became the name of a research grant program sponsored by the French presidency to attract U.S.-based scientists — like Cantrell, 62, an expert in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“It was all over the news in the United States and on social media,” he told Reuters on the sidelines of a summit in Paris marking the Paris accord’s two year anniversary.
“I found out about a week ago that I was successful. This is going to be fun,” he said.
Moving for the funding
For Cantrell, the decision to move to France is not a political one, but a response to a gradual decline in public funds in his field, which he did not expect to get better under Trump.
“I’ve been disappointed with this whole administration, as to how they ... view the world of science and policy-making,” Cantrell said.
“I wouldn’t say I’m coming to France to get away from the Trump administration, but it was an opportunity that wasn’t available in the United States,” he added.
Macron, who repeatedly tried to persuade the U.S. leader to reverse his decision, also sees an opportunity to raise the profile of French research institutes and attract top talent.
Some 1,822 researchers applied for the program, the French presidency said, with almost two thirds of them coming from the United States.
Thirteen of the initial 18 grants awarded on Monday were given to U.S.-based scientists, including some from prominent Ivy League universities such as Princeton, Stanford and Harvard.
A second batch of grants will be awarded early next year.
Cantrell, who works on air quality and what happens to pollution when the atmosphere tries to process it, will be based at the University of Paris-Est in the suburb of Creteil. He will study the Paris plume — the cloud of pollution that regularly shrouds the French capital.
“This laboratory that I’m going to be associated with has world-class expertise, state-of-the-art computer models to simulate the atmosphere, so this place I’m going to is actually perfect for the kind of work I’m interested in,” he said.
Salary covered for five years
The 1.5-million-euro ($1.76-million) French grant means the constant hunt for funds to finance his research that was part of his daily life in the U.S. was now less of a concern.
“It's been tough. Now I’ll be able to not have to worry about that part of it. My salary is covered for five years, I can focus on science,” he said.
He and his wife are now busy brushing up on their French.
“I came for a week to visit the lab, see the kind of things they did, I got to meet the staff, English works fine for all the people that work there,” he said.