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US researchers relieved as government shutdown ends

Science agencies are poised to resume normal operations after lawmakers back stopgap budget measure.

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Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington with US Capitol

Lawmakers in the US Congress agreed to a temporary budget for the US government.Credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

The US government shutdown that began on 20 January is over, after Congress approved legislation on 22 January to fund government operations until 8 February. US President Donald Trump signed soon after.

The deal emergedon the same day that thousands of government scientists deemed ‘non-essential’ headed into work for a few hours to close down their labs and offices.

The short-term budget fix would fund the government for less than three weeks, raising the possibility of another spending showdown in early February. The current shutdown was prompted in large part by disagreement over an immigration programme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It shields nearly 800,000 people from deportation, all of whom were brought to the United States illegally as children. (Among them are many young immigrant scientists.)

Trump announced in September 2017 that he would end the programme. Democrats in Congress had pushed to include new protections for DACA participants in any budget deal, despite Republican opposition — contributing to the funding impasse that caused the shutdown.

Looking ahead

Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland, says that she is “cautiously optimistic” about the progress that lawmakers have made in the past few days towards a long-term budget agreement. “I'm going to withhold my panic for now,” she says.

Ideally, Zeitzer says, Congress would pass legislation by 8 February to raise limits on federal spending limits — clearing the way for a spending bill to cover the remainder of the 2018 fiscal year, which ends on 30 September. “I'm just hoping the experience of going through a shutdown was painful enough for everyone,” Zeitzer says.

In the meantime, researchers are waiting to see how the brief shutdown and continuing budget uncertainty might affect their work.

Peter Neff, a glaciologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, is part of a team that has applied for an NSF grant to study trace gases in Antarctic ice. The researchers had hoped for the grant to start on 1 January, but it has been delayed by several weeks. Neff isn’t sure why — but he notes that at a scientific meeting in December, an official with the NSF’s polar-programmes division said that it was operating under the assumption that it could face a 10% budget cut in the near future. Like other federal agencies, the NSF has been operating under a string of short-term spending measures since the 2018 budget year began in October.

For Neff’s team, any additional delay could make it difficult to plan field-season logistics with their international partners. “We’ve already put two years into this project, and we’re not going to have samples or data for another two years,” he says. “We don’t want that timeline to get any wider for any reason.”

The grant is also supposed to pay for 50% of Neff’s postdoc salary; until it comes through, the University of Washington is covering the full amount. “In reality, there are people who are in far more difficult situations than I am,” he says. “I can carry on and assume that everything will work itself out. But it’s just not an efficient way to operate.”

Just in time

The shutdown’s apparent end comes just in time for Chad Hayes, a plant scientist at the US Department of Agriculture, to make a planned trip this week to Mexico. There, his team plans to breed experimental sorghum at a winter nursery — the culmination of a year of planning and experiments.

Hayes expects to finish the field work by 8 February, but has to return to Mexico in March or April to harvest seeds from his sorghum plants and bring them back to the United States. If there is another shutdown then, the plants will go to waste. "When the plants say something's ready, we have to be there," Hayes says. "Plants know nothing about about weekends, holidays, or even government shutdowns!"

Others note that even planning for a shutdown creates major work for federal agencies, as they prepare to send employees home and shut down systems. Senior managers at agencies must think about what functions are critical and how to justify continuing those if funding runs out, says Heather Howell, a former deputy director at the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Intense planning goes into every one of these possible shutdowns,” says Howell, now a consultant for NSF International in Washington DC. “It’s extremely costly to do all of that planning. Every time I sat in one of these meetings, I would wish that somebody would do an analysis of how much money is sitting around this table right now.”

Nature 553, 389 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01069-3

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