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5 Ways the Shutdown Will Continue to Be a Drag for Early Career Scientists

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All the world is not a stage. The recent theatrics in Congress over raising the debt ceiling and reopening the government have made some people laugh, others cry, and still others simply deny the seriousness of the issues. With the immediate fiscal crisis now behind us and the government again open for business, some people may believe that our troubles, at least for the moment, are behind us, too. But for early career scientists—graduate students, postdocs, and even talented undergraduates—the shutdown has had very real, concrete consequences.

During the shutdown, UCS asked our Science Network members to tell us about what they were experiencing. Early career scientists and their mentors had a lot to say, and below we share some of their stories in order to highlight the numerous ways the shutdown will continue to be a drag on young scientists’ professional and personal lives:

1) Getting locked out of a lab, even for a few weeks, hampers research and slows progress towards important career milestones.

Throughout the shutdown, we heard reports of federal labs and facilities closed across the country, leaving scientists at all stages of their careers with interrupted projects  on everything from vaccines to cancer to climate change. Scientists working at universities with government funding have been hard hit. In the words of one scientist and professor, “At Oregon State University, our doctoral students and post-docs have been locked out of their offices and had to find other places to work from, since the federal government owns the research facilities. People’s dissertation research, or more importantly, research vital to health and welfare of us all, now lays in ruins. Months and years of experiments now have no one to monitor them, no one to log results, and no way to pick them up again once they have gone unattended.  People will not graduate, their years of work and money wasted if they cannot prove their research.”

2) Interruptions in ongoing monitoring and data gathering have the potential to screw up long term projects.

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Temilola “Lola” Fatoyinbo-Agueh, pictured here doing research outside the lab, is an environmental scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. She is a 2011 recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. Image courtesy of NASA.

Lab closures aren’t the only causes of interrupted research. The public is well aware of how a vacation might be spoiled by the closure of national parks and monuments, but early career scientists have been affected, too.  A doctoral student explains, “The majority of my dissertation research is done on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife refuge. I’ve been locked out since October 1 and if things don’t get resolved soon I’ll have big gap in a 3 year data set.” That gap could mean unpublishable results and create a multiyear career setback.

3) Having an advisor furloughed during a key period of dissertation research interferes with degree completion.

Oftentimes, graduate students work collaboratively with their advisors. For graduate students nearing completion, these collaborations are time sensitive. According to a doctoral student whose advisor is a U.S. Geological Survey employee affected by the shutdown, “My research involves working with mySQL and Access databases, R script, Excel spreadsheets, and other programs. The efficiency of this operation has greatly declined as my adviser was doing the work with the databases while I focused on the other programs … not only has the shared time invested decreased, the efficient division of labor is gone.”

4) Job opportunities are lost.

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Learning how to teach science at Brookhaven National Laboratory: Clint Harris, a chemistry teacher in BNL’s program, leads the GEAR UP and Dowling College Summer Science Institute students. Image courtesy BNL.

If you are a recent Ph.D. graduate looking to pursue a career as a professor, your job search operates on a strict calendar. Academic job searches are typically conducted during the fall semester one year prior to the academic year the position would begin, and recommendations are crucial. One recent Ph.D. currently on the job market explained that the shutdown would make it difficult to get recommendations in time to meet application deadlines: “Several of my scientific collaborators work at national laboratories, and their recommendation letters will be important parts of my applications … I have been warned by them that I need to get letter requests to them early [before they would be furloughed].” Academic job seekers whose searches are inhibited by the shutdown could face a year of unemployment or underemployment if they cannot complete applications.

Fellowship and publication opportunities have also been restricted by the shutdown, and this has ripple effects. A postdoc at the National Institutes of Health studying neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s fears lost time that can never be made up: “Since my fellowship is granted for a limited time frame, the shutdown has hindered my research career and jeopardized my ability to secure a subsequent position, because a lack of time in the lab means no experimental results and thus no peer-reviewed publications.”

5) Shutdown interruptions have made it not only difficult to work but difficult to live.

Early career scientists don’t have a lot of money. Graduate students and postdocs often depend on small stipends to get by and may have taken out significant loans, as well. Closed labs and other facilities can prolong research, making it necessary to secure additional funding, which can be challenging and—if in the form of additional loans—expensive.

But early career scientists supported directly by federal grants have found themselves in even more immediate and precarious financial situations due to the shutdown.  A recent Ph.D. in biology and NSF grant recipient working at the University of Edinburgh explains, “The government shutdown has affected me directly because the start date of my fellowship was October 1, the first day of the shutdown. This means that my fellowship cannot be fully processed until the government starts back up, which means I will not receive the money for my stipend or research until then. This basically means I am in a new country, supposed to start the work the NSF deemed important enough to fund, with no support for living expenses or research. In addition, I have not been paid since May, when I finished out my graduate teaching contract, so savings are running thin.”

Offstage and Back in Reality …

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Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.” Image courtesy of LLNL.

Political theater of late has relied too heavily on soliloquies and not enough on dialogue. Fortunately, politicians came to their senses before we all walked into the fourth wall. The government has reopened and the fiscal crisis has been averted—until January anyway, when we hopefully won’t be subjected to Act II. By then, however, many early career scientists will likely still be working to get their research and their lives back on track.

Even with all the political shenanigans, working at a federal agency has traditionally attracted some of our best and brightest young scientists because it affords them opportunities to do amazing things like get a peek at the early universe, map entire coastlines using supercomputers, and ram cars into walls at high speed to test their safety. The private sector doesn’t have the resources or the mission to do things like that.

More importantly, scientists at federal agencies are using their knowledge and skills to help protect the public’s health and safety.

While reports of potential “brain drain” have begun to circulate anecdotally, the appeal of working as a federal scientist has lured more than a few Nobel laureates, past and present, to devote their careers to government service. Many others who work at universities are supported by federal grants, including 204 internal and external laureates supported by National Science Foundation and other agency grants.

We should hope the next generation of our nation’s scientists will want to follow in their footsteps, but there is no question that the October 2013 shutdown, even though it is now over, will cast a shadow on early career scientists for some time to come, whether they choose to pursue a future at a government agency, university, or private facility.

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , ,

About the author: Deborah Bailin is a democracy analyst for UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy and researches political and societal barriers to formulating science-based policies. She came to UCS in 2012 as an ACLS Public Fellow and holds a PhD in English from the University of Maryland, where she studied the influence of science on literature. Subscribe to Deborah's posts

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