And on the 16th day, they agreed to end the shutdown. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Wednesday night voted to end a partial shutdown of the U.S. government that has paralyzed science funding agencies, disrupted research projects and meetings, and threatened to wipe out an entire season of field studies. President Barack Obama quickly signed the legislation, sending hundreds of thousands of furloughed government employees back to work today.
The Senate voted 81 to 18, and the House 285 to 144, to approve a bipartisan deal that funds the government through 15 January. It sets spending at an annualized level of about $986 billion, at least temporarily adopting lower spending levels sought by Republicans. It also keeps in place, for the time being, mandatory spending cuts known as the sequester, which take effect on 15 January. It authorizes back pay for furloughed workers and authorizes the president to increase the debt limit through 7 February. Lawmakers in the House and Senate also agreed to try to negotiate the outlines of a broader budget agreement for the 2014 fiscal year by 13 December. That blueprint could set the stage for a longer-term solution to the spending stalemate, but the two political parties remain far apart on many fiscal issues.
For researchers, the end of the shutdown means that planned field research in Antarctica can resume after days of delay. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation will resume processing grant applications that have been piling up during the 16-day layoff, and accepting new applications. Biomedical scientists will be able to enroll patients in trials and studies at NIH’s clinical research center. Science vessels operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration can return to sea. Engineers can again prepare to light up the world’s most powerful laser facility, the National Ignition Facility at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. Astronomers will regain access to a trio of powerful radio telescopes. Ecologists can tend instruments at long-term research sites on federal lands that were closed to access.
In some cases, it may take days or longer to resume normal operations. And the shutdown’s impacts could linger for months, as government officials attempt to wade through piles of grant applications, e-mails, and paperwork that piled up during the weeks they were required, by law, to stay away from their official e-mail and phone messages.
In an 11 October memo, National Cancer Institute (NCI) Director Harold Varmus warned that the research restart could be bumpy. “[A]voiding a major crisis in grant-making and program development this year may be possible only if all members of the NCI communities are willing to help alleviate the consequences of the shutdown,” he wrote. NCI has had to postpone “several site visits to evaluate re-competing centers and large grant applications, and it has postponed more than a dozen meetings to review grant applications. Thus, the NCI’s grant review cycle could be significantly delayed, threatening a smooth restart of NCI’s support of extramural research, even if the NIH reopens relatively soon.”
“Part of the reason I am writing at this time is to prepare you for the possibility that we at the NCI (and presumably others at the NIH) will be asking reviewers and advisors to adapt to abrupt and inconvenient changes in the scheduling of meetings to review grant applications and oversee programs,” Varmus added. “These changes may require you to alter long-standing plans to attend worthwhile events.”
Some of the shutdown’s impacts on research may be impossible to undo. Lost data will never be recovered and ephemeral field events will go undocumented. And the financial uncertainty will continue as Congress continues to try to agree on a long-term plan for funding government operations. Research agencies may not know their final 2014 spending levels for many months, forcing them to spend conservatively. Agencies may also be barred from starting planned new initiatives, such as construction projects, until budgets are resolved.
Still, many researchers and science fans breathed a sigh of relief as news spread of the shutdown's end. "Non-sarcastic hugs to those at NASA who will be returning to their jobs as awesome science wizards of the stars,” tweeted Sarcastic Rover, a Twitter persona developed by Canadian screenwriter Jason Filiatrault.
At NASA, public affairs officials sent out a Thursday morning Tweet: "We're back! Our various media sites are being turned back on as quickly as possible. Thank you for your patience!"