No Shutdown For Now, But What Effect Does Budget Uncertainty Have On Government Scientists?

, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy | October 6, 2015, 1:51 pm EDT
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Two years ago this week, Washington, DC was a ghost town.  With federal employees furloughed and millions of workdays disrupted, the streets were eerily quiet and Americans were deprived of the Panda Cam.  But there were bigger consequences.

When it comes to impacts on science, the 16-day government shutdown was costly. Science done in government facilities stopped. The CDC stopped monitoring disease outbreaks, the FDA stopped testing and approving of new drugs, and the USDA stopped working with farmers on crop diseases that could devastate their businesses.

Luckily, we narrowly missed the possibility of another shutdown this year, with the President signing an Continuous Resolution into law just hours before a shutdown would start. But what effect does budget uncertainty have on science, even when it doesn’t result in a complete government shutdown?

Scientists survey reveals budget woes

On a recent survey, government scientists expressed concerns about budget uncertainty, sequestrians, and other resource constraints inhibiting their ability to do science. Photo: FWS

On a recent survey, government scientists expressed concerns about budget uncertainty, sequestrians, and other resource constraints inhibiting their ability to do science. Photo: FWS

Last week, UCS released a report summarizing 7,000 survey responses from government scientists. The survey asked participants about their experience as a government scientist, scientific integrity issues, and overall agency effectiveness. Participants were given the chance to tell us what would most improve scientific integrity at their agency, and many of them talked about the impact that budget uncertainty, shutdowns, and other resource constraints had on their ability to do science and the ability of their agency to carry out its mission.

One FWS scientist told us, “Frankly, the mission and integrity are fine, it is the current lack of resources and people that is the major hindrance to production and use of science by FWS.” Another CDC respondent echoed, “We presently have inadequate resources, not only for conducting research, but also for communicating findings… This limits our effectiveness as well as reducing morale.”

The uncertainty of budgets, sequesters, shutdowns appear to be an ongoing hindrance to government scientists’ ability to conduct their work. One NOAA scientist wrote, “Remember the sequester fiasco and other budget uncertainties that have happened? Very difficult to efficiently conduct business under this kinda budget uncertainty.” An FDA scientist put it succinctly, “FDA is seriously hampered in its efforts to fulfill its mission by inadequate appropriations from Congress.”

On FWS scientists wrote just how devastating such cuts can be in his division:

“[We need] more funding to carry out the basic mission. Science! What a luxury. We have suffered devastating staff and budget cuts in the last several years–just staying on top of bare minimum control of the most of noxious weeds is about all we can handle right now on my refuge. Time to do research is almost unthinkable in this current budget climate.”

And such cuts have real impacts on the decisions made by federal agencies. One scientist explained, “we don’t have adequate funding and personnel to do the science that is required, and decisions have to be made without all of the studies we’d like to do.”

Ending uncertainty, demanding solutions

We deserve better. Scientists should be able to do their work uninterrupted by the uncertain and inconsistent sway of politics. If you agree, join me in signing our letter asking congressional leadership end budget uncertainty. As the letter notes, the vital scientific work of federal agencies is thrown into chaos by the extraordinary degree of uncertainty that has become the norm for the federal budget. The functioning of government shouldn’t be pulled into question on a routine basis. We need a long-term solution and we need it now.

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