How Donald Trump's U.S. Government Shutdown Is Hurting Scientific Research

Tuesday, 08 January 2019 - 10:50AM
NASA
SpaceX
Tuesday, 08 January 2019 - 10:50AM
How Donald Trump's U.S. Government Shutdown Is Hurting Scientific Research
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NASA Goddard CC BY 2.0
On orders from the president, the United States government has been partially shut down since December 22nd. The dispute at the center of this debacle is a request for $5.7 billion to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, which Congress has refused. Because of the standoff, there are roughly 380,000 government employees who are temporarily out of work and another 420,000 who are working without pay – indefinitely. It is perhaps easier to see how that affects those who work for the TSA, National Park Service, and the State Department but, according to reports, the government shutdown is also delivering a significant blow to the scientific community.

Wired reports that operations research analysts at departments like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association have important work to do, like making the reports that lead to permits for fishermen and crabbers to ensure that the seafood industry is not disrupted.

Instead, they are waiting.

Other departments and agencies like the National Institutes for Health and NASA are semi-operational because of previously-approved budgets and appropriations but – with an estimated 95% of the space agency's workforce sent home three days before Christmas – not a lot is being accomplished.

And there are ripple effects for those who are not classified as government employees. SpaceX test launches, for example, are on hold because the NASA employees who oversee operations can't work. Researchers around the globe have had to postpone data collections, analyses, and even sample shipments because their collaborators have been furloughed.

Michigan State University entomologist Rufus Isaacs told Science Mag that his bee samples are just sitting in a fridge when they should be off to a lab. There is no telling how long the shutdown will last, but Isaacs says that when it comes to agricultural research, a matter of months "can mean a whole year of progress is lost, because if we don't have the answers from the recent experiments, we don't know how to prepare for the coming growing season."

And Isaacs is not alone. Closed museums and departments have halted time-sensitive studies across the country, with some scientists reporting that they are not allowed to travel and can't even access their work computers – which means no responding to emails, no looking at spreadsheets, and no reviewing data. One evolutionary biologist has had to file for unemployment benefits, while others are unsure if they are legally allowed to get part-time jobs to make ends meet. "In a moment's notice, I went from believing I had secure income to not knowing when I would be paid," said UC Davis ecologist Marshall McMunn.

Almost everyone agrees that, on some level, this situation never should have happened... But with each passing day the actual scale of this mess becomes even more apparent. Hopefully it will end soon, so that hundreds of thousands of people can get back to their jobs. We all have better work to do.


Image: NASA Goddard CC BY 2.0
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