Shutdown upends scientific research
The furlough of hundreds of thousands of federal employees will probably persist into the new year, which would mean a rocky start to 2019 for American science.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is scheduled for a historic encounter with a faraway space rock called Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever explored by humans. At the time, about 95 percent of NASA employees – everyone except those deemed essential to the survival of ongoing missions – will be at home, furloughed without pay.
The partial shutdown has also affected operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Agriculture Department. In Washington and around the country, thousands of furloughed government scientists are prohibited from checking on experiments, performing observations, collecting data, conducting tests or sharing their results. Not only does the government employ researchers, but many scientists at academic and private institutions depend on federal funding for their jobs.
If the budget impasse extends into the new year, scientists say, it will harm critical research.
“Any shutdown of the federal government can disrupt or delay research projects, lead to uncertainty over new research, and reduce researcher access to agency data and infrastructure. … Continuing resolutions and short-term extensions are no way to run a government,” said Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement.
Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center who is among the roughly 15,000 furloughed NASA employees, worries about missing rare astronomical phenomena – starbursts proceed with or without a federal budget. Just days before the government closed, she and her colleagues at the Fermi space telescope observed a pulsar flashing in an unprecedented way. She scrambled to get a follow-up observation using NASA’s NICER instrument in her last days at work.
“But if the government ends up shutting down for more than a week, we won’t get a second one,” Harding said.
Crucial research windows will slam shut on Earth, too. A crop-eating pest called the brown marmorated stink bug emerges only in the spring. Scientists must prepare for the insects’ annual debut, and missing it would set researchers back an entire year, the Entomological Society of America warned. “A lot of incredible science happens in our government every day,” said Robert K.D. Peterson, the organization’s president, in a statement. “But when the government shuts down, even partially, that work is derailed.”
In Alexandria, Va., the National Science Foundation headquarters is closed. About 1,400 employees are furloughed, a spokesperson said. “Ongoing operational and administrative activities will be minimal unless the suspension of these activities will imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property,” the agency said in a statement.
The NSF is a funding agency, and its closure will have a massive effect on research if the shutdown lasts for an extended period. Review panels, which convene to approve or reject scientific grant proposals, were not scheduled in the final week of 2018. Should the shutdown extend into 2019, panels in January will have to be canceled and rescheduled, disrupting the flow of science. The NSF does not distribute grant payments to scientists during a shutdown.