Scientist leaves Oxford for US only to lose job offer in Trump cuts

Researcher talks of anger over job loss caused by federal hiring freeze

April 27, 2017

A postdoctoral scientist who left a job that she loved and moved across the world to take up a policy position in the US government has spoken out about her disappointment at having her employment offer disappear.

Ali Swanson, who until recently worked at the University of Oxford, fell victim to President Donald Trump’s federal hiring freeze after a prestigious science policy fellowship offer from the Department of State was rescinded.

She said that it was “very scary and worrying” that science expertise is “not valued or respected” by the Trump administration.

Dr Swanson is now raising money through a crowdfunding website to finance the writing of grant applications so that she can return to Oxford.

“This has been a rather large derailment in my career plans,” she told Times Higher Education.

Last summer, Dr Swanson left her postdoctoral position at Oxford, where she was working on a citizen science project called the Zooniverse. She was awaiting security clearance to start an American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship.

Her job would have been to bring science into government policies – on chemicals and other pollutants that move across geographical boundaries – in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the US Department of State.

Dr Swanson, an ecologist who studies how animal behaviour translates into population dynamics, said: “It is a very prestigious fellowship, and I had wanted to do it for a long time. The application process is gruelling.”

But a series of events over the past few months have meant that she is now unemployed.

One of Mr Trump’s first actions as US president was to initiate a federal hiring freeze.

As Dr Swanson had a conditional job offer, her fellowship was not initially affected by the freeze. But after Mr Trump issued his proposed budget, which set out sweeping cuts to science and diplomacy, the State Department decided to withdraw any offers for AAAS fellows awaiting security clearances.

“I was gutted. I gave up a life that I really loved to move back here to work in science policy, and I’ve been really excited for that to start. To have that taken away, I am devastated. I am also incredibly angry,” she said, adding that she had turned down a two-year contract on the Zooniverse project to take up the fellowship.

“It is very clear that science is not a priority [for the Trump administration] and scientific expertise, especially when it comes to climate change, is not valued or respected, which I find very scary and worrying,” Dr Swanson added.

For the time being, she is pursuing short-term contract work alongside her crowdfunding campaign. “I still hope to be able to find my way into science policy, but right now I’m regrouping and figuring out those next steps,” she said.

Dr Swanson continued: “Part of the reason that we are in this situation with these sweeping cuts to science is maybe scientists haven’t done a great job of communicating the importance of basic research,” she said.

“It highlights the importance for researchers to communicate what we do and why it is important,” she added. 

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