Science Policy & Funding News

With Shutdown Over for Now, Science Agencies Pick Up the Pieces

Agencies and employees weigh the impact of the shutdown.

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The government shutdown, which is over for at least a few weeks while Congress and the administration negotiate border security legislation, cost the U.S. economy several billion dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In addition, the 35-day shutdown imposed economic hardships for federal workers, contractors, and others.

It also brought disruptions to federal agencies, including science agencies, which are now trying to assess the shutdown’s damages, pick up the pieces, and move forward with their missions.

NASA Looking into Furlough Impacts

At NASA, during the lapse of appropriations, the agency “continued its important, essential work, including maintaining and operating the International Space Station and protecting the lives of our astronauts, continuing critical scientific research, and ensuring safe operations across the agency,” Steve Cole, public affairs officer at NASA Headquarters, told Eos.

“As we get back to normal procedures, it will take several weeks before we fully understand the impacts of the furlough,” he stated.

NSF Priorities Include Funding for Staff, Awardees, and Contractors

At the National Science Foundation (NSF), the agency is “working to address the many impacts of the lapse of appropriations” on its staff and stakeholders, Amanda Hallberg Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs, told Eos.

“Due to the length of the lapse we must prioritize activities that enable us to resume operations as quickly as possible. We won’t know all of the challenges we face until we’re back. Because we are working in a 3-week continuing resolution, we cannot immediately return to business as usual,” she stated. “Our highest priority will be to get funding to our NSF staff, awardees and contractors. We will be making sure our facilities are financially sound and reestablish proper oversight of them. We will work to reschedule the numerous review panels that had to be canceled during the lapse.”

Dave Verardo, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3403, the union that represents 1,000 NSF employees, told Eos that the temporary agreement to end the shutdown “is good news in general” because staff will be paid “and Congress and the administration will have time to sort out policy issues unrelated to NSF.” However, the agreement also “is worrisome because it is only 3 weeks and the level of budgeting at the NSF for science programs is unknown,” said Verardo, who is the program director for NSF’s paleoclimate program but spoke to Eos in his capacity as union president.

Verardo said that the harm from the shutdown has included canceled or postponed panels to evaluate and fund research proposals, canceled or delayed conferences and meetings, and lowered staff morale. “After each shutdown, staff always assesses if working at the NSF or the government is the right choice,” he said. Verardo added what he said is a cautionary note for Congress and the administration: “The shutdown ended when [federal employees] got tired of the abuse of being shut out of work or being forced to work without pay. You can only abuse hostages for so long before they stop playing along.”

NOAA Staff Aim to Move Forward After Shutdown

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) campus in Silver Spring, Md., a number of NOAA staff and contractors told Eos on Monday that they are relieved to be back at work but that the shutdown took a toll on the agency.

Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator at NOAA’s climate program office, told Eos that the shutdown delayed and disrupted projects, conferences, and meetings. The shutdown also temporarily shut down the agency’s Climate.gov Web portal, making the site unavailable to educators who rely on it for teaching and to communities who use the information to inform decisions about water, fire, food, or other issues. The shutdown “denied people access to the trusted role that we [at NOAA] play. We do the work in impeccable ways to inform the nation, and to have that not available to them is a challenge, especially in this time when this issue”—climate change—“is so important,” Niepold said.

“We hope that we’re going to be able to continue to do that work and we plan to,” he said. “We have to spin things back up and we have to pull all the pieces together and continue the mission.”

Jordan Dale, a contractor in NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality, said that a big impact of the shutdown is the delay in processing funding proposals for universities and researchers. Dale said that there is “definitely an impact on research that is being done and ultimately that will impact the ability of advancing weather forecasting.”

“It’s just sad to see important research slip through the cracks,” he said. With the shutdown, “I think there’s a sense that science isn’t valued as much as we all hoped.”

A Personal Toll

For some staff and contractors, the shutdown hit home, too. Anthony Koduah, an auditor in the Department of Commerce’s Office of Inspector General, said that he paid a personal price because of the shutdown. After missing a month of paychecks, Koduah had to withdraw his child, who is in kindergarten, from a private school.

The shutdown “is not pretty, it is not good,” Koduah told Eos. NOAA is an agency within the Department of Commerce. Koduah said that it doesn’t make sense to not allow people to work and then to pay them later. “Who is going to pay all this amount of money? It’s going to be the taxpayers at the end of it. So it doesn’t make sense.” Koduah, who immigrated to the United States from Ghana, said that even in his native country, the government doesn’t shut down.

Courtney Brock, a geographic information systems contractor with NOAA who wasn’t allowed to work during the shutdown, told Eos that she felt fortunate not to have to foot some big bills for the past month. Brock, a disabled veteran, lives with her parents for free and didn’t have to worry about covering rent or mortgage.

Brock said on Monday morning that she wasn’t sure yet what the shutdown means for her unit at the agency. “I haven’t been in the loop. I haven’t even been able to check my email” during the shutdown, she said. Another staffer was required to work without pay during the shutdown to maintain some of the more critical functions of her unit, she said.

Reboot Could Take a While

William Michaels, director of the advanced sampling technology program with NOAA Fisheries, was at the beginning of a 3-month assignment with the U.S. embassy in Norway when the shutdown started, requiring him to return to the United States prematurely. The U.S. State Department had selected Michaels, who has been with NOAA for more than 40 years, for the assignment to work with Norwegians on international collaborations to protect ocean resources.

The shutdown was “embarrassing” because it disrupted important collaborative work, Michaels commented. “Using science and improving science through collaboration is exceptionally important for our management decisions of how we manage our ocean resources,” he said. “NOAA is the steward of our nation’s ocean, and we work with other countries to protect that most valuable resource for our planet: water [and] food, and it’s tied to climate and everything else.”

“The shutdown really delays everything,” he added. “It’s going to take us a while to reboot. Five weeks has set us back 10 weeks easily.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), With shutdown over for now, science agencies pick up the pieces, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO115043. Published on 29 January 2019.
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