Scientist turns to crowdfunding to preserve the future of water in the Pacific Northwest

As California dries up and New York defrosts after its coldest winter in 65 years, some of us are waiting for a bugle call to “Send in the scientists!” But funding for climate research is as dry as a Los Angeles lawn. NASA’s earth science budget, which primarily focuses on climate research, was just cut by 300 million dollars. Scientists across disciplines are struggling to find grants to do crucial research.

Janice Brahney is a postdoctoral scientist at the University of British Columbia, with a background in biogeochemistry (PhD) and an MSc in Earth Sciences. Brahney is one of a core group of scientists collecting data on melting glaciers, water quality and water supply in the Columbia River Basin, which provides crucial freshwater to 6 US states and British Columbia. Their initial investigations suggest that policy makers are trying to manage this essential water resource without enough critical information. But unfortunately, like so many scientists, Brahney can’t get the funding she needs to answer this question.

Janice Brahney, post-doctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia

“Our data just doesn’t support the models’ conclusions,” says Brahney. “The current models treat glaciers like an endless source of water. Our team and many other people are mobilizing in different ways to fill this ‘information gap’. We want to make sure we don’t legislate before promising all of this water that may never come.”

The best available information that policy makers use to manage the basin promises plenty of water in the coming years. Current models project a 5–19% increase in water flow over the next few decades, a forecast based on climate information and trends from historical conditions that assume glaciers are inexhaustible sources of water and that winter precipitation will increase in a warming world. Brahney warns that the available streamflow and precipitation data do not support this conclusion. The discrepancy between the models and data highlights how much we have left to learn about this complex system.

This is even more pressing as the treaty that governs the Columbia River Basin is up for renegotiation for the first time since 1964. The Obama and Harper administrations only have the current models to guide their decision.

“If we’re going to consider the future, we can’t look 20 years in the past, and assume the system will follow the same trend over the next 20 years without considering the other factors at play,” says Brahney, “It’s like CSI, we need to use the clues that we have to figure out how the loss of glaciers will affect ecosystem services, like seasonal water availability, nutrient cycling, and biodiversity.”

Glacier within the Columbia River Basin.

To fund her postdoctoral work, Brahney is relying heavily on an award from the National Sciences and Engineering Resource Council (NSERC), the largest funder of scientific research in Canada. This grant is just enough to cover her modest living expenses and fuel a portion of her research. To help reach the rest of her goal, she’s now turning to Instrumentl, a crowdfunding platform for female scientists.

“We imagine a world where researchers spend less time worrying about fundraising and more time mitigating climate change and reducing disease,” says Instrumentl co-founder, Angela Braren. “I was a field scientist. My cofounders are a former marine scientist and plant ecology researcher. Despite how much we loved field work, we literally couldn’t afford to do it anymore.”

Instrumentl founders (from left to right) Angela Braren, Katharine Corriveau, & Victoria Kentner.

Braren is one of many scientists desperate to fund projects with the potential to prevent ecological crises and inform policy. Instrumentl hopes to help researchers like Brahney, who occupy an emerging and rapidly growing professional class in science. They’re not quite faculty, so they’re not eligible to apply for faculty grants, yet they’re not graduate students anymore with the ability to be supported by academic grants directed at the students.

Instrumentl puts extra emphasis on funding women in STEM. “Fundraising is already the hardest part of the job,” says Braren. “It gets harder when a supervisor tells you that you didn’t get the field job because ‘you’re just another pretty girl from Barstow’. Or when a peer editor tells you to add a male author to your journal article to be considered seriously.” Janice Brahney agrees, “Science isn’t valued in our current political climate. Being a woman in science can even be more challenging.”

Brahney’s remembers being restricted from exploring outside when she was a kid. Her brother went to boy scouts while she stayed home with her mother. “But I loved being outside. I loved adventure and I loved science,” she says. “I kept studying and researching anyway. Then one day I looked at my life and I was leading five guys on a ten day backpacking research trip. Everyone can do it. I want to put that in reach of other girls.”

So now Brahney is bringing her funding hopes to the scientific community, hoping her peers, family and friends will help where the government couldn’t. With a little support, she’ll continue researching how climate change is affecting water resources in the Columbia River Basin. She is hoping to bridge the gap between academia and policy — the “knowing-doing” gap. This way, she can ensure that her work not only answers real-world questions, but that the results end up in the hands of those who manage our essential resources.

Scientists like Brahney are the world’s modern explorers, braving the Sierras at 7,000 feet for months, dodging poachers in East Africa, and diving to dangerous levels in the icy Atlantic. They’re a different class of people, driven to their work to advance knowledge and make the world a better place.

“I love my job. I’m driven to get answers to the questions I have,” says Brahney. “That’s a wonderful way to live your life.”

If you want to support Brahney’s research and make sure we have water for the next generation, donate to her campaign on Instrumentl.

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