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As Shutdown Takes Hold, an Essential Few Scientists Still on the Job

1 October 2013 6:00 pm
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Smithsonian Institution

Working. The Smithsonian’s Carla Dove, an ornithologist, will be at work during the shutdown because of her expertise identifying birds that have collided with aircraft.

A bird identification expert might not seem like an employee essential to keeping the U.S. government functioning. But ornithologist Carla Dove was one of a select corps of federal scientists deemed important enough to be exempted from a sweeping government shutdown that began today,  paralyzing research funding agencies, shuttering a wide range of science projects, and sending home more than 800,000 federal employees.

“I’m getting prepared to be lonely,” Dove said yesterday, noting that most of her colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t be allowed to work. “It will be me and 650,000 museum specimens.”

The shutdown is the result of an epic stalemate between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which could not agree on how to finance the government for the 2014 fiscal year, which began on Tuesday. It is the first shutdown since the winter of 1995–96, when an impasse over spending priorities prompted agency closures that lasted nearly a month. This time, however, the disagreement centers on efforts to undo the new U.S. health care law known as Obamacare.

The crisis came to a head yesterday, as Senate Democrats four times rejected bills passed by House Republicans to defund or delay Obamacare in exchange for funding the government for a few months at existing levels. Without such appropriations, agencies technically have no money to spend.

Some agencies still open

A shutdown doesn’t mean that the entire government closes. It is largely business as usual at agencies the White House has deemed essential for public safety and national security, for instance, including the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

At the 10 national laboratories supported by the Department of Energy's (DOE’s) Office of Science, researchers are soldiering on. The labs, which support x-ray synchrotrons, neutron sources, and other major facilities used by academic and industry scientists, are run for the government by private and university contractors. That means the labs were not required to shut their doors immediately. In fact, most appear to have a cushion of money left over from the last fiscal year, which ended yesterday, that they will use to keep going for as long as possible.

Officials at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, for instance, say they have no immediate plans to turn off the Advanced Photon Source, an x-ray synchrotron that supports some 4600 researchers each year. "We've got a month and after that we are powering things down," says Eric Isaacs, the lab’s director. Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is less optimistic about how long his lab can keep the doors open. "Basically, we're trying to take things day by day for the moment," he says. "I don't think we can make it through a month."

Both Mason and Isaacs stress that, even as their labs remain open, the lack of funding is affecting smaller research efforts. Oak Ridge receives funding through roughly 40 different sub-budgets or "control points," Mason explains. Although lab officials have some ability to redistribute money within each sub-budget, they cannot move money from one to another. So different research efforts will run out of gas at different times if the shutdown continues, Mason says: "There are 40 odd little cliffs that you go over as each of these buckets runs dry." Once enough programs have been forced to stop, Mason says, it will become untenable to keep the lab open, even if other programs still have a shekel or two to spend.

At the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York, director Doon Gibbs sent staff a memo this morning that read, in part: “Laboratory management will continue to take prudent steps going forward to mitigate the impacts of the shutdown, and we ask you to do your part by limiting all non-essential travel, conferences, training, and meetings, etc., to help reduce costs. … Please maintain your focus during these uncertain budgetary times, watch out for each other, and concentrate on the things we can control.”

Grantmaking shuts down

Other research agencies are already feeling the pain. At the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 73% of its more than 18,600 employees have been ordered to stay home. Although outside researchers can still submit grant applications through automated systems, NIH won’t process them. And study sections won’t meet to review pending applications.

The widely used PubMed database, which holds biomedical papers and abstracts, is not being updated, and the GenBank gene database isn’t taking new data. No new patients are being admitted to the NIH Clinical Center, where more than 1400 studies are under way. The grants system also ground to a halt at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which spends 95% of its budget on research done by others. (Researchers who already had money in hand from both agencies can continue to draw funding.)

Meanwhile, public websites have gone dark for NSF, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and other agencies. “Due to the Federal government shutdown, NOAA.gov and most associated web sites are unavailable,” reads the NOAA site. “We sincerely regret this inconvenience,” NSF says. Websites at NIH and DOE are still up, but won’t be updated, according to notices.

The essential scientists

Every agency, however, has a list of employees that it says should keep working no matter what. At NSF, that “exempted” workforce amounts to just a few dozen people responsible for security, information systems, and overseeing its Antarctic program. NASA’s few workers include those watching over the International Space Station. At NIH, more than 5000 employees have been deemed critical to caring for patients and other tasks, including about 730 who are maintaining experiments in NIH’s 1140 intramural laboratories.

One scientist on NIH’s essential list is Al Singer, chief of the Experimental Immunology Branch at the National Cancer Institute. He reported to work today to tend the lab’s colony of 14,000 mice, who give birth to 1200 pups each week that must be genetically tested and culled. “There’s no way this can stop,” he tells Science.

A veteran of the last shutdown, Singer worries morale will suffer. “It’s a major disruption and people look at their job differently afterwards,” he says. “It takes a while to reenergize.” One NIH worker, he said, felt as though she had been fired. “There’s a lot of anxiety now,” he says. “People have to realize it’s a political fight. We’re collateral damage. But the intent is not to hurt us.”

In Boulder, Colorado, a skeleton crew of NIST physicists and technicians is maintaining a cesium fountain clock that keeps official U.S. time accurate to 1 second every 100 million years, says Tom O'Brian, chief of the time and frequency division of NIST. Just 15 of the usual 100 or so employees will work limited hours to maintain the clock—“one of the most complex pieces of equipment in the world,” he says. It is essential to keeping GPS units, electrical power stations, and telecommunications networks in sync. “We depend upon really precise and accurate timing and synchronization for our modern technology every day,” O’Brian says.

At NIST’s Boulder nanofabrication facility, four people out of about 100 will stay on duty to make sure temperature changes or other unforeseen events don’t damage millions of dollars in equipment in the facility, which serves a variety of academic and industry users. “It’s not a natural condition for everything to be shut down,” says lab manager Vince Luciani. He will remain on duty to check gauges on more attention-needy devices, including ultrahigh vacuum systems and photolithography equipment. He’s already looking ahead to the end of the shutdown. “To me, it’s very important, once they say ‘go’ and we can start working again, to as quickly as possible pick up where we left off.”

At the Smithsonian, Dove will be doing a job that her bosses deemed essential: trying to identify birds that have collided with aircraft. On Wednesday, she is expecting feathers and other samples taken from a helicopter crash last March. Fall is always her busy time, she adds, with seasonal migrations leading to up to 50 bird strikes a day. And one of her contracts with the U.S. Air Force requires a quick turnaround, so Dove says she will be alternating with one other person to try to keep the backlog from building up. After she preps a sample and isolates DNA, she will be able to call in a sequencing technician to have the DNA deciphered. Then it’s up to her to match the DNA to a species and write a report.

This year’s shutdown is also déjà vu for Dove, who was one of the few to stay on the job during the last closure.  “We’ve never had to close down,” she says. Overall, just 12% of some 6400 employees at the Smithsonian, which is two-thirds federally funded, are allowed to work.

How long Dove and other essential scientists will be working without their colleagues is unclear. Also unknown is whether, once the crisis is resolved, the furloughed workers will be paid for the missed time.

In the meantime, there is a fair amount of confusion about how to inform the public about the impact of the shutdown. An NSF official who was at work today after being deemed essential hung up on an inquiry from ScienceInsider because “talking to the media is not part of my excepted duties.” And the media managers at two DOE national laboratories said that all press queries were being handled by DOE’s office of public affairs, which will be closed for the duration of the shutdown.

With contributions from Adrian Cho, Jocelyn Kaiser, David Malakoff, Jeffrey Mervis, Elizabeth Pennisi, and Kelly Servick.

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