Science Stories from the Shutdown

October 11, 2013 | 5:34 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

As I write this, we are into the eleventh day of a partial shutdown of federal government operations, prompted by a failure of Congress to approve a budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which began on October 1. As we began this new month, the government furloughed hundreds of thousands of federal workers and federal contractors. But the effects of the shutdown go far beyond just national parks and government agencies.

Chemicals_in_flasksToday, we sent email inquiries to our 20,000-strong scientist network about the impact of the federal government shutdown on their lives and work. The members are from across the country, from a huge variety of scientific fields, and committed to using their expertise for good. We didn’t know quite what to expect in response to our email on a Friday afternoon. But within an hour of our message we had more than 50 responses, a tally that is growing even as I write this.

The responses are as varied as the scientists who wrote them. Some are deeply personal. Others point out the larger public costs when important scientific work is stopped dead in its tracks. Some come from federal scientists. Others work for facilities that depend on federal research and experts. Many came from young scientists who find themselves in research limbo.

Critical tasks interrupted

A toxicologist who works for the Environmental Protection Agency expressed great frustration that the crucial work of testing chemicals on the market for toxicity has been interrupted. This work had been slow and complex, and short of manpower. Now, things are worse, the scientist writes. “The next time you reach under the sink to pull out a cleaning product, ask yourself if you’d really like to know if it was causing cancer, or if it was safe.” The shutdown, the toxicologist concludes, will keep toxic chemicals on the shelves “longer than they otherwise should have.”

A NASA employee had to leave his Space Environment Simulator test chamber at the Goddard Space Flight Center on October 1, just as scientists from Europe and Canada were arriving to participate in a sensitive test of a crucial component of the James Webb Space Telescope. He’s worried that if the shutdown goes much longer, “the test will have to be rescheduled, adding many millions of dollars of cost and months of delay to JWST, one of NASA’s three highest-priority projects.”

Even those federal scientists still on the job are not able to do the critical tasks that people around the world depend upon for information on health, safety and environmental conditions. One writes, “I run a global chemistry forecast every day that is used by groups around the world as boundary conditions for regional air quality models. I have had to stop running these daily forecasts because they require the NASA GEOS-5 meteorology forecasts, which are not available due to the shutdown.”

Repercussions go beyond federal agencies

Scientists who don’t directly work for the federal government also are stymied and unable to help people. At a university in the Pacific Northwest, there’s a plant pathologist analyzing pathogens lethal to local crops.  But she can’t consult with US Department of Agriculture experts or use the equipment at USDA local labs. While the government may consider these experts “nonessential,” she writes, the farmers she works with “might disagree.”

An ecologist who works for a state agency in the Northeast is studying the impact of natural gas exploration and development on bird populations in the region. But the scientist can’t talk to collaborators at the US Geological Survey, and he can’t access the USGS database. “The bottom line? I am a state employee who depends on federal resources to do a job that directly benefits state agencies and I cannot do my job right now.”

Young scientists face uncertainties, lost opportunities

And then there are the young scientists, whose dreams and ambitions have been put on hold.

A Midwestern scientist engaged on finding safe and effective treatments for the most vulnerable premature infants finds himself in a vulnerable place. He doesn’t know whether the advisory panel that will decide to support his training as a researcher on the comparative effectiveness of different treatments will be able to meet later this month, and he is out of research funds for the time being.

Pity the poor post-doctoral candidate studying biology at the University of Edinburgh. Her National Science Foundation fellowship was supposed to have begun on October 1, when the government shut down. She’s out of funds and can’t begin her research. Her savings from her graduate teaching contract, which expired in May, already have been depleted. Luckily, she’s found a safety net through her fellowship advisor, who will share her research funds with her. And she’s been supported by her UK colleagues, who, she writes, are “astounded that the US government would allow this kind of thing to happen.”

Sadder still is the thought of a young researcher whose “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Antarctica” to do field work on long-term climate variations may likely be canceled. She bemoans the “millions of dollars that will have been squandered on lost work and hollow plans, sending a ripple effect into the future as researchers are forced to wait an entire year” before the weather will accommodate field research. She notes that her personal disappointment with “an opportunity like that slipping through my hands, after rearranging my life to be deployed pales” when compared to the sense of loss felt by researchers who have dedicated their entire lives to this research.

This isn’t just about a delay in research. Some of our members wrote about losing critical windows for field sampling, or delays in the lab that put research in jeopardy. Not to mention students whose training is interrupted and perhaps can never make up the time lost.

Science isn’t just the pursuit of knowledge by a lone researcher. Scientists are connected, and they need the resources of this great nation right there with them to do the work we all depend upon.