Science and the Shutdown: 11 Days and Counting

11 October 2013 5:15 pm

Wikimedia/Martin Falbisoner

Working late. Members of Congress are beginning to edge toward a possible end to the partial U.S. government shutdown, which has disrupted the work of many scientists.

ScienceInsider has been tracking the partial U.S. government shutdown since it began 11 days ago.  Member of Congress and President Barack Obama are now discussing a way out of the impasse.

For some scientists, it’s too little, too late. Their research has already been disrupted. For others, however, the crisis has yet to hit home.

So who’s still working—and who’s been hit the hardest?


Immediate Effects

The day after the shutdown, grantmaking at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) ground to a halt. Essential scientists still on the job included a D.C. bird identification expert, physicists maintaining the cesium fountain clock that keeps official U.S. time, and an immunologist tending 14,000 mice at the National Cancer Institute.

Antarctic Research Winding Down

Although most NSF activities were immediately suspended after the shutdown began, certain programs (including Antarctic research) had some leeway to continue operating using leftover funds from 2013. But now the clock is winding down, and NSF will have to close its research programs in Antarctica if the U.S. government shutdown continues beyond 14 October. Also on the chopping block are several major NSF-funded construction projects, including a solar telescope, a gravity wave observatory, and ecological and ocean-observing networks.

Ecologists Face Long-Term Effects

For Long Term Ecological Research projects, missing even a single field season can create unfillable gaps. Shutdown casualties include a 23-year Antarctic study tracking the effect of sea ice on the polar biota and a New Mexico climate variability project that has been active since 1988.

U.S. Radio Telescopes Go Dark

All the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s (NRAO’s) U.S. telescopes were turned off on 4 October. A fourth telescope in Chile, run in partnership with three other countries, has enough money to limp along for a few weeks.

NIH Denied Exemption From Shutdown

Last week, Senate Democrats blocked a House of Representatives plan to restore current funding levels for NIH through 15 December, saying House Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose which federal agencies they’d like to reopen. One representative likened the discussion on the House floor to “a new episode of The Hunger Games.

Shutdown Throws Wrench in Scientific Meetings

With 800,000 workers furloughed, meetings have had to be postponed or canceled. An NIH researcher traveled to Perth in Western Australia—a 30-hour trip from Washington, D.C.—only to learn by e-mail from NIH that he could not present at the meeting.


MAVEN Mission Is a Go After All

NASA officials ruled on 3 October that work on MAVEN, which is scheduled for launch between 18 November and 7 December, can continue after all. The spacecraft is designed to study the martian atmosphere, in part to figure out how its climate apparently became inhospitable for life. NASA has essentially shuttered the rest of its space science operations.

Many Marine Researchers Still Afloat

Despite initial reports from the American Geophysical Union that government research vessels would have to return to port if the shutdown lasted more than 24 hours, many U.S. research vessels are still on the water and have enough money to stay there until December. None of the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System’s 19 vessels have been recalled, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s primary research ship will continue working. The U.S. Navy’s research ships also remain active. Gets Exemption

NIH may have been denied a shutdown exemption, but the website was granted a reprieve and is now operating during the shutdown to enable clinical trials to move forward.

Collateral Damage:

One astronomer says the NRAO closures have rendered about $500,000 and one year’s worth of data useless. The Antarctic research halt spelled disaster for at least one graduate student, who arrived at Palmer Station along with several pallets of his Ph.D. research equipment and was told to turn around and go home. Cell biologists aren’t happy either: There’s no one at customs to approve shipments of research fruit flies, and grant reviews are on hold. Other scientists shared their frustrations on Twitter. Share your stories with us @ScienceNews.