Science Policy & Funding News

Federal Government Shutdown Stings Scientists and Science

Scientists say the shutdown is a message that the government considers science nonessential.

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With the partial U.S. federal government shutdown now in its 21st day over a dispute about constructing a security wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, members of the science community worry about the impact of the prolonged shutdown on staff, on science, and on American competitiveness.

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), “there is low morale at the agency where innovation is our stock and trade,” according to Dave Verardo, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union that represents 1,000 NSF employees. “These kinds of shutdowns really sting employees because they feel like, ‘if we feel our job is important, how come the Congress and the administration don’t see it as such?’”

At NSF, 1,397 staff have been furloughed. The agency had no presence at the American Meteorological Society’s (AMS) annual meeting and other conferences in January, and 19 merit panels that were supposed to review and consider funding 486 science research proposals this week were canceled or postponed, among other impacts, an NSF spokesperson told Eos. Forty-eight panels to review 656 proposals that are scheduled for next week may not take place or will be postponed if the shutdown continues. At NSF, 72 “excepted” employees are performing limited duties during the shutdown while 218 staff in “exempt” positions with money already obligated also remain on the job.

The shutdown “starts to get ugly” today for furloughed federal employees because it is the first time since the shutdown began that they are not receiving a paycheck, said Verardo, who is the program director for NSF’s paleoclimate program but spoke to Eos in his capacity as union president. He said many staff live paycheck to paycheck and may not have a financial cushion to pay bills.

Harm to the Science at NSF

Verardo said the shutdown also harms the science at NSF. “We’re not open for business. We’re not doing anything during the shutdown. We’re not doing anything when it comes to research and development and STEM. It’s zero,” he said, referring to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “No money goes to the universities that are the engine of this kind of innovation. None of it goes to small businesses. We can’t work with other federal agencies. We’re just stuck.”

For each week of a shutdown, NSF falls behind about 4 weeks in the process of evaluating and funding research proposals because the shutdown “backs up the system,” Verardo said. In addition, the shutdown cuts into critical time to get money out the door to fund a lot of field-based work, it makes young researchers question whether they should go into science, and it weighs on America’s competitive edge, he said.

“The Chinese are moving ahead and the Germans are moving ahead and the Europeans are moving ahead, and we are stuck arguing over a fence,” Verardo said.

Contingency Planning at NCAR

The shutdown also affects NSF-funded facilities, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), which the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) manages on behalf of NSF. UCAR director Antonio Busalacchi told Eos that NSF has been trying its best to support its facilities and that NCAR currently has sufficient funds on hand to fully operate through 19 January.

However, Busalacchi said that staff have already been asked to curtain nonessential travel and large purchases. Without additional funding on 19 January, staff will have the option of being furloughed with zero pay or to continue working at 50% pay with the intention that they would receive the other 50% after the shutdown ends.

In addition to causing anxiety among the staff, the shutdown also has the potential to disrupt ongoing research and could lead to gaps in observational data, said Busalacchi, who began his professional career in the midst of a 1982 federal government shutdown.

Among the biggest impacts of the shutdown on major projects at NCAR and UCAR is a delay in upgrading to version 2 of the National Water Model, which is based on NCAR’s weather research forecasting model, known as WRF-Hydro. Version 2 includes forecasting tools for Hawaii to better protect lives and property from severe weather. Busalacchi said another shutdown impact was the cancellation of a planned interagency meeting at the AMS conference to conduct a prelaunch assessment of the upcoming launch of the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate–2a (COSMIC-2a) satellite, whose data will help with numerical weather prediction. Busalacchi said that once the government is open, “we’re going to have to scramble and still have that sort of meeting.”

Busalacchi said that although those and other projects are important for protecting lives and property, the shutdown “is another message saying that science is not valued in this country, that it is being viewed and deemed as nonessential. Implicitly or explicitly, that is the message that is being delivered both to the scientists and to the citizenry.”

Concerns About Attrition Because of the Shutdown

Kim Cobb, professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, currently has four funding proposals pending at NSF that are in limbo because of the shutdown and its “hamstringing of the scientific enterprise.” Cobb, who also directs Georgia Tech’s global change program, worries about the impact of the shutdown on early-career researchers, some of whom are included in her proposals.

These proposals “are really make-or-break moments” for the early-career scientists, she said. Cobb told Eos that she is concerned that the shutdown will result in attrition out of science by early-career researchers who fear for their financial well-being, for their job security, and “for a career marked by not just this shutdown but repeated shutdowns and repeated funding uncertainty from the federal science budget.”

“The shutdown occurs as an exclamation mark on a broader landscape of uncertainty in continued support for science,” Cobb said. “People really don’t understand how hard we are paddling upstream to try to continue our research in this environment and keep our heads down and do our jobs and not have repeated anxiety attacks about the landscape of funding and what the shutdown will do to the scientific enterprise. It is a serious challenge.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Federal government shutdown stings scientists and science, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO113723. Published on 11 January 2019.
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