After 5 years as a lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard, Jamie Collins knows what it’s like to be at sea. But nothing in his military service prepared him for his current 30,000-km scientific round trip to nowhere, courtesy of the failure of the U.S. Congress to approve a budget. His predicament is one of the stranger—and sadder—tales of how the government-wide shutdown is affecting researchers.
Collins, a third-year graduate student in chemical oceanography, arrived Wednesday at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Palmer Station in Antarctica. He was eager to begin working on a long-running ecological research project funded by NSF and to start collecting data for his dissertation in a graduate program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But the rough seas he encountered during his 4-day crossing of the notorious Drake Passage in the south Atlantic—the final leg of a journey that began in Boston—paled in comparison to the storm he encountered once he stepped off the Laurence M. Gould, a U.S. icebreaking research vessel that ferries scientists and supplies between Punta Arenas, Chile, and the west Antarctic Peninsula.
On Tuesday, NSF had announced that its contractor for Antarctic logistical support, Lockheed Martin, would begin putting the three U.S. stations on “caretaker” status unless Congress passed an appropriations bill to continue funding the government by 14 October. Although legislators will eventually adopt such a bill, nobody expects them to act in the next few days. Without an appropriation, NSF has no money to operate the stations.
For Collins, that announcement meant his plans for an intensive 5-month research regime had suddenly melted away. “The station manager told us not to unpack our stuff and to stay on the ship,” he says in a phone call to ScienceInsider from the ship. “She said we were to wait here for a week while they prepare to shut down the station. Then we’d sail back to Chile, and go home.”
Collins was stunned. “I had spent all summer preparing for this trip,” he says. He had filled three pallets with supplies for his experiments on how algae in the region detect and react to the presence of ultraviolet radiation, part of a larger effort to understand the role that bacteria play in sequestering carbon in the Southern Ocean. “Without the data from those experiments, I may have to reevaluate what to do for my Ph.D.,” he adds.
Collins was also part of the first wave of students arriving at Palmer this season to work on a research project, begun in 1990, that explores how the extent of annual sea ice affects the polar biota. The project is one of 26 so-called LTER (Long Term Ecological Research) sites around the world that NSF supports. He was scheduled to divide his time at Palmer between his own research and monitoring penguin colonies on several offshore islands as part of the LTER project. And he had signed up for a 6-week research cruise aboard the Gould that supplements the land-based LTER observations with oceanographic data collected up and down the peninsula.
Despite the jarring news, the 31-year-old Collins says that he is more worried about what it may mean to some of his younger colleagues with less worldly experience. “I spent 5 years in the military and I’m used to dealing with bureaucracy,” he explains. “And nothing that happens here is going to deter me from pursuing my goal of a career in science. But for some of the undergraduates on the trip, this is their first taste of what Congress thinks about the value of scientific research. And it’s sending them a pretty horrific message.”