Science in limbo as US government shuts down

Grants are set to dry up, space launches could be delayed and some experiments could be ruined.

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Dome of US Capitol in Washington DC

The current government shutdown, which began on 20 January, is the second in less than five years.Credit: Win McNamee/Getty

Scientists in the United States are bracing for impact after lawmakers in Congress failed to agree on a plan to fund the government, triggering its indefinite shutdown on 20 January.

As a result of the impasse, thousands of federal researchers have been ordered to stay at home, barred from accessing their government e-mail and phones. That will leave many science agencies staffed by small numbers of ‘essential’ employees, interrupting government research on everything from winter snowpack in the western United States to the inner workings of the brain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will stop processing grants, depriving some academic researchers of crucial funding, and NASA may be forced to delay the launch of spacecraft that have spent years in development.

But worst of all, many researchers say, there is no clear sign when the shutdown will end. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are continuing to negotiate a budget deal, seeking to resolve a major disagreement over immigration policy, but progress has been slow. The last government shutdown, in October 2013, lasted for 16 days — cutting short the US Antarctic Program’s annual field season, delaying some grant-funding cycles by six months or more and disrupting an untold number of carefully planned experiments.

“We kind of feel like there’s not much we can do about anything,” says one NIH researcher of the latest shutdown. “It’s very annoying. It’s very demeaning.”

For Bryan Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the current situation brings back bad memories. The 2013 shutdown caused the NIH to delay, by several months, a grant cycle for which Jones had submitted a proposal. As a result, he says, his university had to cover the costs of running his lab while he waited for the NIH’s decision.

Jones again has a grant application under review at the NIH — and he says that a delayed decision this time could force him to lay off some of his employees. “From a scientist’s perspective it hurts. We get angry,” he says. “But NIH is doing what they can do.”

Shrinking windows

Other researchers face the prospect that the shutdown could cause major delays to projects that are well under way. Chad Hayes, a plant scientist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), says that he will lose a year’s worth of work if the shutdown persists for more than a couple of days. Hayes, who is part of a team developing a variety of drought-resistant sorghum, was due to travel to Mexico on 22 January. There, his team planned to breed the plants during the brief window when sorghum is pollinated — about one week each year.

But the USDA told Hayes to stay at home if the government shut down. Now he worries that he will miss the pollination window, delaying his experiments for a year and wasting the money that his team spent preparing for the Mexico trip. “It’s basically like walking away from your babies,” he says. “We’ve been building up to this project for a year now.”

At NASA, the funding lapse could delay the planned launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that is designed to monitor the Sun’s activity at close range. On 17 January, the probe entered a thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There it is scheduled to undergo seven weeks of tests in conditions that mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations that it will experience as it repeatedly swoops around the Sun.

If Goddard closes and the tests cannot proceed, the probe might not be ready to launch between 31 July and 19 August, the brief window during which Earth’s position relative to other planets in the Solar System would enable the probe to achieve its proper trajectory towards the Sun.

Fortunate few

Some government programmes are prepared to weather a shutdown, at least for a few weeks, because they are operated by contractors who receive federal money in periodic chunks. Officials with the US Antarctic Program have told polar researchers that funding for the remainder of the current field season, which ends in February, is guaranteed. And the National Science Foundation recently gave a 30-day cash infusion to the construction managers supervising work on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile.

Then there is the Department of Energy (DOE), which will continue normal operations until it has spent money left over from previous budget years. “Bottom line: the Department of Energy will be open for business on Monday,” said spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes. She refused to say how long the department’s cash reserves might hold out.

The DOE’s science facilities include 17 national laboratories that study everything from nuclear weapons to climate change. Sixteen are run by contractors, and should be largely unaffected unless the shutdown wears on for several weeks. An official at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said that if that happens, that facility would seek to minimize disruption by slowly phasing in furloughs, or enforced leave, for non-essential employees. “We don’t at some point just magically turn off the lights,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter.

At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 55% of employees will stay on the job during the shutdown, in part because a significant chunk of the agency’s funding comes from fees charged to industry for reviews of drugs and medical devices. By contrast, just 0.9% of the roughly 8,000 workers at the US Geological Survey are considered essential — including seismologists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado, who provide real-time analysis of earthquakes worldwide.

Closing time

The longer a shutdown lasts, the bigger the potential hit to government scientists’ morale, researchers say. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt said his agency had enough funding to operate normally into next week, but it remains unclear how long such an approach could hold. The agency’s posted shutdown plan calls for fewer than 800 of its roughly 14,000 employees to report to work. The EPA’s Office of Research and Development will halt active experiments, although some employees will be permitted to care for laboratory animals and maintain equipment.

“Staff will be allowed to come in and feed the fish, but they cannot take the measurements for the scientists,” says Lesley Mills, an EPA biologist in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and president of the local chapter of a union that represents agency employees. “People are going to be upset.”

Across the country in Boulder, Colorado, a skeleton crew will keep watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory. The agency’s greenhouse-gas monitoring programme will continue to collect data, but many of the scientists who analyse it expect to be locked out of their offices. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted for 16 days, some of the researchers ended up working from home — probably in violation of federal law.

And at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, which is based on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers have been warned that they will lose access to some science facilities. That’s because the institute is a partnership between the university and NOAA, receives significant federal funding and occupies a mix of government- and university-owned buildings. And although scientists there can access their university e-mail during the shutdown, they are barred from checking their government accounts.

“We’re getting pretty good at this,” says a NOAA scientist about coping with a shutdown’s immediate effects. But the constant uncertainty over federal finances in recent years has made it hard for researchers to plan for the future, the scientist says: “Toss in some threats, like potential budget cuts, and it becomes degrading and counterproductive.”

Preparing for a shutdown poses a “real cost to agencies”, says Joel Widder, a former NSF deputy director who is now a lobbyist with the firm Federal Science Partners in Washington DC. “The threat of a shutdown makes people [at scientific agencies] not take decisions: grants have been held off. Graduate students’ stipends, traineeships, and the purchase of research instrumentation have been put on hiatus.”

Morale worries

A protracted shutdown could also pose more basic challenges for federal researchers — who will not be paid, whether they are ordered to continue working or to stay at home. In a 19 January e-mail, the NIH told staff members that a private credit union associated with the agency would “provide interest-free loans to all NIH employees whose paychecks are delayed because of the shutdown”.

Although government employees are typically given back pay after the shutdown ends, the situation tends to make many anxious, says William Hubbard, a former FDA official. Current employees might think about leaving; prospective employees might decide to work elsewhere. “A shutdown could push these people over the edge,” says Hubbard, who is now retired. “And the FDA already has a critical shortage of scientists.”

For now, researchers are left to watch and wait as politicians seek a new budget agreement. One possibility being floated in Congress is a stopgap funding bill that would run until 8 February — when the government could once again shut down if politicians do not approve another round of spending legislation. Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York and a former director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, says that the current shutdown is likely to last at least a week. Beyond that, he says, “we could go the entire year with the threat of a shutdown.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01016-2

Additional reporting by Cally Carswell, Jane J. Lee, Brendan Maher and Amy Maxmen.

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