Science Policy & Funding News

Shutdown Hammers Early-Career Scientists

Work and pay stoppages imperil the career progress and livelihoods of researchers trying to get a start in their fields.

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On 7 January, ecologist Atticus Stovall started a postdoctoral position at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, Md., to study tropical mangrove forests using data gathered by state-of-the-art laser instruments. Despite the difficulty and expense of moving his family from central Virginia, the chance to work at the facility with some of the top scientists in his field was, he told Eos, “a holy grail opportunity” he couldn’t pass up.

Just 10 days later, Stovall was told to stop working because of the partial federal government shutdown that began on 22 December 2018. Stovall is not a federal employee, but the Universities Space Research Association in Columbia, Md., which receives federal funding to manage the prestigious NASA Postdoctoral Program, had exhausted its reserves, forcing it to suspend its fellowships.

As the now record-long shutdown slouches into its second month, early-career scientists are uniquely vulnerable. Graduate students and postdocs are in a critical career stage: a few-year window when they must build a record of research results and publications that can support future job applications. A month or more of low or no productivity can be a major setback, especially if a researcher gets scooped or if collaborators move forward on projects without them. “If you’re off for a month, or however long this lasts, you fall behind everyone who’s not off,” said Veronica Allen, an astronomer and NASA postdoc at GSFC whose fellowship has also been suspended.

For many, the pain goes beyond career considerations to basic needs. Few postdocs or graduate students have built up significant savings; many live paycheck to paycheck. Some are engaging in part-time or gig work to make ends meet; others are borrowing from family members.

The specific circumstances postdocs face depend on which agency funds them and whether a nongovernmental organization manages the contract through which they are paid. The 181 NASA postdocs, whose fields range from astronomy to geology to atmospheric science to ecology and who work at a variety of NASA facilities, were notified only on 16 January that their pay would be suspended the next day.

After seeing the panic that spread via Twitter, program managers sent a second email clarifying that they had secured financing for short-term, interest-free loans to make up for fellows’ missed paychecks; in addition, fellowships will be extended by the amount of time lost to the shutdown. Researchers say the offer is appreciated but far from a perfect solution. Loans will need to be paid back within a year, although exceptions could be made, and no one knows yet whether contractors will get the same back pay federal civil servants are entitled to. Shawn Domagal-Goldman, a GSFC researcher and former NASA postdoc, took the problem into his own hands, launching a GoFundMe campaign to cover some expenses for current NASA postdocs; the effort has so far brought in more than $17,000, out of a stated $400,000 goal.

Hannah Horowitz University of Washington
Hannah Horowitz in her office at the University of Washington. Credit: Hannah Horowitz

Postdocs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), by contrast, can continue to work, but they cannot access the online system through which they get their salaries and draw from separate allowances designated for research expenses and benefits such as health insurance. What surprised Hannah Horowitz, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is that the agency did not alert her and other postdocs that the system would become inaccessible, which could have allowed them to draw salary and research funds before the shutdown.

Horowitz started emailing other NSF postdocs to learn how their institutions have responded and has received replies from about 70 researchers, which she has shared with the group. “It didn’t seem right that we couldn’t get any information,” she said. Although she is OK financially for now, others reported having to borrow money from family members. Only one postdoc’s university has offered an interest-free loan, Horowitz said.

Postdocs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate and Global Change Postdoctoral Fellowship Program are faring reasonably well, says Leander Anderegg, an ecologist at the Carnegie Institution for Science who is funded by this program. After initially warning that pay would be cut by half, program managers at the Boulder, Colo.–based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) received a cash infusion from NSF, which largely funds UCAR, that has allowed them to continue to pay full salaries through mid-February. But the program faces other hurdles: The application deadline for next year’s cohort has been delayed to 1 February, and it is not clear how many new positions NOAA will fund. The delay and uncertainty could cause potential recruits to take other opportunities, Anderegg fears. Early-career researchers are “the most vulnerable to saying ‘screw this—I’m going to the private sector where I can make three times more and actually have a one-year contract with guaranteed benefits,’” he said.

Perhaps no program more clearly illustrates how the shutdown’s effects are arbitrarily distributed than the National Research Council’s (NRC) Research Associateship Programs, which fund positions at more than 20 agencies. Many postdocs work at agencies not affected by the shutdown. Those at NOAA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are considered “guest investigators” and can continue working from home and getting paid, except for a few whose posts are up for renewal, said Ray Gamble, the program director at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. NRC postdocs at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, meanwhile, are furloughed and not getting paid.

The shutdown can take a significant bite out of the productivity of scientists who are not even directly federally funded. Curtis Walker, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, is “very appreciative and grateful” that he’s still able to work and get paid. But NOAA’s Automated Surface Observing System, a crucial data source Walker uses to train computer algorithms to recognize hazardous weather conditions, is off-line—at the worst possible time. Walker had planned to develop methods to correlate data from this winter’s weather event with traffic camera photos. Even after the shutdown ends, he anticipates, it will take NOAA some time to deliver quality-controlled data again. “It won’t be a snap of the fingers and everything will be back to normal,” Walker said. The outage could force him to pursue a less ambitious research agenda this year and curtail collaborations he hoped to launch with state departments of transportation.

Graduate students are also being affected. University of Michigan oceanographer Brian Arbic applied for an NSF grant to support a graduate student finishing her dissertation and another he hopes to recruit but has not received a final decision because of the shutdown. If the money doesn’t come through soon, he’ll have to scrape together other funding or possibly withdraw his support for one of the students, he said. Abby Lawson, an ecology Ph.D. student at Clemson University, has not been able to defend her dissertation because several of her committee members are furloughed federal employees.

On top of the logistical and financial headaches, Stovall added, the shutdown is preventing him and his colleagues from doing important science that U.S. taxpayers have already invested in. NASA’s $94 million Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, a laser specially designed for measuring vegetation, was recently installed on the International Space Station for a 2-year run. The instrument is producing an unprecedented trove of data on tropical forests, but Stovall and his colleagues can’t access it.

“The data stream is just coming in, and no one can work on it,” Stovall said. “That’s a bummer.”

—Gabriel Popkin, Freelance Science Writer

Correction, 25 January 2019: The number of NASA postdocs who lost support has been updated from 204 to 181; 23 were able to find other funding streams.

Citation: Popkin, G. (2019), Shutdown hammers early-career scientists, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO114709. Published on 25 January 2019.
Text © 2019. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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