Toll on Science and Research Mounts as US Government Shutdown Continues


JANUARY 5, 2018

Scientists aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ship in San Juan, P.R. The administration has furloughed many workers because of the government shutdown. – Danica Coto/AP

One of the first sessions of the American Meteorological Society’s annual conference in Phoenix this weekend seemed like just the sort to attract plenty of government scientists: “Building Resilience to Extreme Political Weather: Advice for Unpredictable Times.”

But the conference, where more than 700 federal employees had been expected, will have few federal scientists in attendance. Many are barred from participating during the partial government shutdown, just one of the numerous consequences for the science community during the capital’s latest spending standoff.

“It’s a huge opportunity lost,” said Daniel A. Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization and a forecaster in the agency’s office near Tampa, Fla.

The shutdown, now in its third week, has emptied some laboratories across the country, forced scientists from the field, upended important scientific conferences, imperiled the flow of grant money and disrupted careful planning for future studies, some of which are time-sensitive.

“We’re not collecting data,” said Leland S. Stone, an area vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents many federal scientists. “And we’re not analyzing the data and we’re not able to make the advances that we’re paid to do.”

Dr. Stone, who works at a NASA center in California and studies how humans perform in challenging conditions, added: “Most taxpayers don’t want to pay taxes and not get the progress they’re paying for. Is it the end of the universe? Is it the end of America as we know it? No. But is it pointless? Is it avoidable?”

The impasse, current and former officials said, will eventually show in shutdown-size gaps in data that scientists often collect across generations. Time-sensitive observations, which are impossible to recover or recreate, are going unseen and unrecorded.

“It’s not just the gap,” said Sally Jewell, who was the secretary of the interior during the 16-day shutdown in 2013. “It’s the ability to correlate that with a broader picture of what’s happening environmentally and ecologically. It really does mess things up.”

The current shutdown has not affected every part of the government’s sprawling science apparatus because some agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, were entirely or mostly funded through other legislation. The Department of Energy, which runs the nation’s nuclear laboratories, is similarly unaffected.

But many other agencies have closed or slowed down. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, has furloughed many workers. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s offices are mostly empty, and the National Park Service has few employees on the job. Almost all employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA have been furloughed.

In limited circumstances since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, some scientific work has continued at agencies that were otherwise mostly closed. NASA, for instance, is still undertaking its “tracking, operation and support” of the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s shutdown contingency plan called for some animal caretakers to report for work.

But rank-and-file scientists said the shutdown was exacting a gradual toll that might not be fully realized for several years, affecting research, morale and, perhaps, the recruitment of prospective employees.

Loreen Targos, a Chicago-based physical scientist for the E.P.A., said at this time of year, she would ordinarily be working on designs and permitting for projects to help improve the Great Lakes.

“All of these things have to be heavily negotiated with attorneys for the science to ever manifest,” she said. “What you’re going to end up having is delays on these outcomes.”

Other current and former government scientists expressed similar concerns about the fates of environmental maintenance efforts, like prescribed burns that help prime habitats and prevent wildfires, and research projects, such as wildlife counts, that had been planned from oceans to tundras. They also worried about any curtailing of monitoring efforts for diseases like white-nose syndrome, which has been blamed for the deaths of millions of bats in recent years.

“A shutdown has these cascading effects on the scientific work of the organization,” said Daniel M. Ashe, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’re hard to foresee or predict right now, but they’re crippling, really, and they affect the organization not for three or four weeks, but for the rest of the year because of all of this complex orchestration of field work.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment beyond its published contingency plan, an eight-page document covering nearly 8,400 employees.

The effects could soon reach beyond government workers and labs, and scientists who are not on Washington’s direct payroll have been fretting over how the shutdown might interrupt the flow of grant money to researchers across the United States. The National Science Foundation, which underwrites billions of dollars in research each year, will cancel dozens of proposal review panel meetings this month if the government remains closed. Other agencies that dole out research money have also effectively put their plans for future spending on hold.

“Having that review process literally shut down now, plus also having the budget year truncated, puts a ton of pressure in terms of getting money out to the states and these federal-state partnerships in order to do science,” said Dr. W. Russell Callender, the director of Washington Sea Grant, which receives money from NOAA and is based at the University of Washington.

“You need the feds as a partner in order to be able to conduct the science the states need,” said Dr. Callender, a former NOAA official, “and to be able to get the money the states need.”

The turmoil also spread elsewhere in higher education. Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, wrote on Twitter on Friday that he would not accept any new graduate students because he had proposals pending with NASA and the National Science Foundation.

“I don’t want to accept a student and then find out I don’t have funding for them,” he wrote.

Stopgap solutions, scientists said, will prove unworkable if the shutdown lasts for “months or even years,” as Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said President Trump threatened on Friday.

Steven Kahn, the director of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which is under construction and will someday be able to take pictures of the sky above the entire Southern Hemisphere, said the portion of the project financed by the National Science Foundation could continue for at least several more weeks without interruption.

David Reitze, the executive director of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, said he faced a similar timeline. But he, and others, suggested their concerns would mount with every broken-down negotiation in Washington.

“If this goes on for a real long time — and, of course, we hope it doesn’t — then it’s going to impact our operations,” said Dr. Reitze, a physicist who oversees a project designed to detect the gravitational waves that Albert Einstein theorized about more than a century ago. “The longer it goes, the worse it’s going to be.”

Courtesy/Source: NY Times