Shut­down up­ends sci­en­tific re­search

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - News - Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

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