Science First Look

Coders volunteer to capture NASA climate data as scientists rally for anti-Trump protests

Climate scientists and other researchers are increasingly speaking up against what they see as the anti-science views of the Trump administration.

The new supercomputer named Cheyenne at the National Center for Atmospheric Research is seen at the supercomputing center in Cheyenne, Wyo. Scientists nationwide are concerned that President Trump, who has called climate change a hoax, might not take climate change research seriously.
Carlye Calvin/ University Corporation for Atmospheric Research/AP
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About 200 programmers who gathered last Saturday at the University of California, Berkeley, managed to collect and archive the majority of NASA and Department of Energy earth science data, after an all-day "hackathon" that sought to locate, download, and make freely available a large and disperse body of findings.

“All these systems were written piecemeal over the course of 30 years. There’s no coherent philosophy to providing data on these websites,” Daniel Roesler, chief technology officer at UtilityAPI and volunteer guide for the event, told Wired

The open-data organizers of the hackathon, which did not involve hacking of the illegal variety, told the site they saw the event as the seed of a decentralized movement involving volunteer coders from across North America, who can capture – and monitor the disappearance of – climate and other scientific data from government sites and preserve it on independent servers.

The event is one of many such efforts planned by scientists and activist allies who fear that the Trump administration could disappear much of the research advances made by government researchers, especially those who study climate change. And it shines a light on a larger political awakening in the scientific community, one that has seen some otherwise reclusive members plan public marches, pen letters to the White House, and even contemplate a run for public office. 

“There are many conversations going on right now,” Harvard historian of science Naomi Oreskes, who spoke at an early scientist-led anti-Trump protest in San Francisco this December, told The New York Times. “Many scientists do feel that the time for sitting on the sidelines is past.”

The Berkeley hackathon, noted The Christian Science Monitor in December, is part of a routine effort from the San Francisco non-profit Internet Archive, which at the start of each presidential administration collects government websites it deems at risk for deletion by the White House’s incoming occupant. But the Archive says campaign-trail statements by Mr. Trump led them to “think bigger” – a perspective echoed by other researchers: 

Jody Roberts and Nicholas Shapiro, two of the researchers involved in the process of establishing a network for collecting and preserving access to EPA data, tell the Monitor that this would not be the first time access to climate research was restricted by a US president. During President George W. Bush's administration, many Environmental Protection Agency libraries were shut down, and there were multiple accusations that government publications on climate change had been edited to change their meaning.

"The idea of storing the information elsewhere emphasizes the need to preserve access to information in the present and for the future. This is why the threat to close EPA libraries under [George W. Bush] was so profound," Dr. Roberts and Dr. Shapiro tell the Monitor in an email. "It is important for this reason to note that many of the individuals involved in these current activities are not scientists but social scientists, historians, archivists, and the like who understand that this about more than censorship; this is about permanently altering the record for the future." 

In the administration’s first weeks, government employees in Energy Department and Environmental Protection Agency have shown signs of open discontent toward Trump and his prospective cabinet’s policies. Other agencies may, too: Eric Kansa, an anthropologist who manages nonprofit Open Context's archiving of archaeological data, told Wired that a friend from the National Parks Service had directed him to an agency data portal apparently ripe for deletion – or preservation.

“Climate change data is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dr. Kansa told Wired. “There are a huge number of other datasets being threatened with cultural, historical, sociological information.”