The nationwide financial squeeze on federal employees, contractors, and the businesses that depend on them may be the most visible harm from the ongoing partial government shutdown, but we should also be aware of damage to science. The shutdown has furloughed federal scientists, stalled data collection, weakened scientific meetings, left current and potential collaborators hanging, and dealt a serious blow to efforts to recruit a talented and diverse federal scientific workforce. Federal science was already suffering under the Trump administration, and the shutdown is only making it worse.
Fewer inspections, missing surveillance
At the New York Times, Coral Davenport reports that EPA has furloughed most of its 600 pollution inspectors and other employees involved with monitoring compliance with environmental laws. The shutdown, she writes, “has halted one of the federal government’s most important public health activities, the inspections of chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, water treatment plants, and thousands of other industrial sites for pollution violations.”
FDA is missing funding for routine food inspections that comes through agricultural appropriations. Although it’s still conducting inspections at high-risk facilities (such as those that process baby formula, raw produce, and seafood), and USDA is continuing to inspect meat and egg producers, FDA has halted routine inspections at low-risk facilities. Vox’s Julia Belluz explains that only a very small percentage of facilities are inspected each week, so this isn’t the kind of major shift that should make us all suddenly fearful of the food we’re buying. Still, the longer the shutdown continue, the more hazards are potentially not getting identified.
Another large portion of FDA’s funding comes from user fees paid by companies whose products and facilities it oversees. The agency has been able to keep using fees it had already collected when appropriations lapsed, but it can’t collect new fees during the shutdown. CNN’s Vanessa Yurkevich and Jen Christensen report:
“With the shutdown, surveillance is not effective. They are doing the bare minimum to get by,” said Geneve Parks, a chemist who tests pharmaceuticals at an FDA lab in Detroit. She says she loves her work but is furloughed along with about half of the 34 to 40 people who work in her lab. Now, she estimates that there are only five people in the chemistry division.
“It’s terrifying. What if there’s an outbreak?” Parks asked. “What would the agency do if something happened and they don’t have the staff to handle it?”
… Cheryl Monroe, Parks’ furloughed colleague in the Detroit lab, worries that the short staffing will have an impact.
“If someone calls and says they’ve had a bad reaction to a drug, we can’t analyze it,” Monroe said. With only a couple people left in her part of the lab, she said there is limited routine analysis of drugs and she believes there is no ongoing surveillance in pharmacies.
“Things happen. There are times we pick up pain medication to check it for milligram dosage, and sometimes it’s wrong. It could cause death,” Monroe said.
With luck, we’ll get through this shutdown without any major outbreaks of foodborne illness or contaminated drugs. But one of the reasons we have agencies conducting inspections and surveillance is so we can rely on science and enforcement instead of luck.
Work left undone
Asked to outline the scope and scale of the partial federal government shutdown on the scientific enterprise, Holt said “thousands and thousands” of scientists are “running into delays, disruptions, [and] sometimes, ruination of their research projects.”
Such multidisciplinary research disruptions negatively impact everything from managing agricultural, environmental and space programs to monitoring the oceans, coastal areas and the weather, Holt noted.
“Suppose you are preparing a space mission, a satellite science mission. You have got a certain launch window,” said Holt, responding to the NewsHour’s William Brangham.
“Suppose you’re looking at insects, and you have to look during the week in the year when they mate. You know, if the government is closed that week, and you can’t collect the data, that’s a problem,” he added.
Shuttered federal land and programs are keeping scientists from collecting samples, some required by time-series studies that are part of long-term research projects, Holt explained during the NewsHour segment focused on the government shutdown’s impact on science.
Time-sensitive science includes studying wovlves and moose via the tracks they leave in the snow; researching the crop-eating brown marmorated stink bug when it emerges in the spring; monitoring white-nose syndrome, which has been killing millions of bats; conducting any necessary repairs to the Hubble space telescope; and training emergency managers in coastal communities on hurricane preparedness. Government scientists have been forced to cancel travel for field work involving marine life and ancient human remains, some of which took years to arrange. Researchers will be left with unfillable gaps in data sets, some of which span multiple decades. Lauren Morello, Sara Reardon, Emiliano Rodríguez Mega, Jeff Tollefson, and Alexandra Witze write for Nature:
And in California, a crucial survey of the state’s fisheries has been postponed because a research ship owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the RV Reuben Lasker — is confined to port in San Diego. The ship was meant to have headed out on 6 January to collect data on ocean denizens such as plankton and whales, along with ocean physics, for the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI).
Further delays could make it hard for scientists to compare data from this year’s planned winter survey to previous observations, because the team won’t be able to monitor some seasonal events, such as the spawning of certain fishes. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to do a delayed or truncated cruise or — likely at this point — we’re going to have to abandon this quarter’s data altogether,” says Brice Semmens, the director of CalCOFI, which is run as a partnership between NOAA, the California state government and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
If the cruise is cancelled, it would be the first time in decades that the 70-year-old CalCOFI project has missed its winter fisheries survey. The loss would be incalculable, Semmens says: “With monitoring programmes, you don’t know why the data is valuable until it’s valuable.”
For years into the future, research will suffer from the lack of data that federal scientists should have been collecting for the past three weeks.
Federal scientists aren’t the only ones missing out. Those who rely on data, funding, and collaborations from shuttered agencies are also suffering. “During shutdowns, valuable NOAA, NASA, and other agency websites that provide data to students and researchers are often shuttered,” writes Forbes contributor Marshall Shepherd, who spent 12 years working for NASA and now directs the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Atmospheric Sciences Program. “This affects research productivity.” Widely used NOAA weather and climate databases are offline, a Nature article notes. Smithsonian Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts told Science that during the shutdown he can’t engage in the kinds of communications with collaborators across the U.S. and the globe that “are at the heart of collaborative science.”
Nature’s Lauren Morello talked to Science Friday’s Ira Flatow about the shutdown and noted that the Senate just confirmed the Trump administration’s science advisor (Kelvin Droegemeier) — but he’s awaiting guidance on work he can do during the shutdown.
Scientific agencies also represent an important source of research funding, so the shutdown is delaying time-sensitive research and hiring. Lupita Montoya had been awarded an EPA grant prior to the shutdown, but hadn’t received the funds for her work measuring air pollution in the Navajo Nation. “I have to a find way to continue our project” despite not having received the money, she explains. “Otherwise, we will miss the heating season and have to wait another year.”
The National Science Foundation has suspended reviews of grant proposals and will likely delay panels that judge postdoctoral fellowship applications. States that participate in state-federal partnerships like the NOAA Sea Grant are missing the money they need to keep projects going. Texas A&M climate scientist Andrew Dessler explained on Twitter how delayed grant decisions affect students’ prospects:
Every year at this time, we admit new grad students into our program. Most faculty only take new grad students if they have funding for them. Right now, I have pending proposals at NSF and NASA, and am waiting on decisions before I accept any new grad students I don’t want to accept a student and find out I don’t have funding for them. We need to inform students of our accept/reject decisions by Apr. 15. If I don’t hear from the agencies in the next ~2 months, I’ll miss the window and won’t take any new grad students in 2019.
The longer the shutdown continues, the more promising careers will be disrupted.
Major absences at scientific meetings
Scientific meetings are also essential for productive collaborations, and the shutdown has prevented federal employees from attending at least three major gatherings: the American Astronomical Society, the American Meteorological Society (AMS), and the Plant and Animal Genome meetings.
“There are about 700 govt employees who would normally be at this meeting who are not, and that is an enormous loss for us,” AMS executive director Keith Seitter told the Associated Press. “A lot of what happens at this meeting is people getting together in the hallways, developing new relationships, developing new areas to collaborate, and that can’t happen if those people aren’t here.” He described “a little bit of scrambling” regarding about 800 presentations that were slated to be given by government workers who could not attend.
Many of those who did make it to the meeting used #WeMissNOAA to register their disappointment at being unable to interact with NOAA staff who’d ordinarily be at the meeting. The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino, Sarah Kaplan, Angela Fritz, and Carolyn Y. Johnson discuss the impact of NOAA National Weather Service employees missing the event:
This meeting is where scientists hatch new ideas for lifesaving methods and warnings, said Dan Sobien, the president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization. “Any delay in that research could someday cost someone their life, and that person could be you or me,” Sobien said. Not having NWS meteorologists there to collaborate “will likely cost many more lives than the absence of any border wall, anywhere.”
With climate change bringing us more severe and more frequent severe weather events, government scientists should be fully participating in the meteorological community, not canceling conference travel.
Weakening the scientific workforce
Federal employees and other scientists are well aware of how these kinds of shutdown impacts can hinder career development for early-career scientists and make federal jobs seem far less appealing. Marshall Shepherd, the former NASA scientist, writes:
I am a professor at a major university. I hear students express concerns about going into civil service because of the gamesmanship of shutdowns. This is a problem. If our best and brightest avoid federal service, it means that places like the National Weather Service, FEMA, NASA, NOAA and intelligence agencies are not getting them. These are organizations provide critical services to the nation and are highly technical in nature. They need the best and brightest.
“This is undermining our ability to go out and make a pitch to promising young scientists and tell them this is the place to be,” says one researcher at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak to the press. He is trying to hire people to fill several open positions in his lab — including one set to start on 21 January — but cannot make final offers to top candidates until the government reopens. “It’s a competitive market,” the researcher says. “How do I convince someone who is finishing their PhD that they should come to the USDA — that it’s a great place, with great people and science?”
And the shutdown is harming federal efforts to recruit a workforce that’s diverse as well as talented, warns John Winnett, executive director of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science:
The shutdown has a dangerous effect on our ongoing efforts to diversify the STEM workforce. For example, underrepresented minority students working at federally funded or federal labs through STEM diversity initiatives are at risk of disrupting their career and professional pathways in STEM if they don’t get paid. Underrepresented minority students and STEM professionals are already vulnerable within the workforce, making them first and worst affected by these type of events.
In addition to damaging the scientist pipeline, the shutdown is harming morale among current employees, who were already facing what the Washington Post’s Avi Selk and Ellen McCarthy summarize as “budget cuts, hiring freezes, inept Cabinet secretaries and, for some, open hostility to their fundamental mission.”
One way to document concerns
If you’re affected by (or have insight into) these kinds of problems, the Union of Concerned Scientists is seeking information about impacts of the shutdown on science:
We are looking for specifics that communicate the true cost of this (and every subsequent) shutdown. We’d like to know how your work has been disrupted, both during the shutdown and in preparation for it. Federal employees, contractors, and grant recipients—as well as users of government services—can reach out through our Science Protection Project. By going through that project, you can be as anonymous as you like.
You can also contact us directly using the methods described here, or share your thoughts in the comments section below. We are focused on how the shutdown compromises the mission of federal agencies such as EPA, NOAA, Interior, FWS, USDA, NASA, and more, and seek stories from employees, contractors, and agency grant-funded scientists.
Be as specific as you can. What projects are suffering? Where are they located? What are the lost benefits? What are the consequences for research and communities? And what impact do repeated shutdowns have on productivity and morale?
The UCS Science Protection Project exists to help government and government-funded scientists expose actions that compromise the ability of the government to use science to serve the public interest. You can reach out at any time to access these resources.
Documenting impacts now can help make the case for legislation to prevent future shutdowns. In the meantime, I’m grateful to federal scientists for their fortitude and hope all of them are back at work soon.