US science agencies hit by government shutdown

NASA, the National Science Foundation and other agencies must halt many activities until politicians reach a budget deal.

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U.S. Capitol building is reflected in a water puddle on a chair arranged for an audience

Lawmakers in Congress ran out of time to agree on budget deal and avert a shutdown. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty

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Several major US science agencies have shut down indefinitely after politicians failed to reach a deal to continue funding government operations beyond 21 December.

NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration are among the agencies affected by the shutdown — the third in 2018. They will now begin the process of winding down many activities, keeping on the job only those employees whose work is considered essential to protect life and property. (Read more about how the shutdown will affect individual agencies.)

Within hours of the shutdown taking effect, the NSF website featured a banner announcing that the agency was closed, and that panels for reviewing grant proposals were cancelled indefinitely.

Mike MacFerrin, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, is worried that even a brief shutdown could hamper his time-sensitive application for NSF research funds. “We have a pending grant proposal that — if funded — would start fieldwork next Spring,” he wrote on Twitter. “A shutdown *could* delay the decision long enough to essentially torpedo the work this Spring, even if eventually approved.”

He added: “To my colleagues out there who are federal employees this holiday season ... I am sorry. This sucks.”

In limbo

Federal workers who are considered essential must work without pay during the shutdown, and may be given retroactive pay once it is over — if Congress passes legislation authorizing such payments, which are not otherwise guaranteed. Essential workers are also barred from taking previously scheduled vacation, a tough prospect for many, with Christmas and the new year just days away.

“I’m excepted [from the shutdown]. My excepted activity is hunting hurricanes. There are no hurricanes. Legally however, I’m still required to be in the office,” tweeted Nick Underwood, an aerospace engineer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “This makes me taking leave to see my friends and family for the holidays a crime. Lmao.”

Some government science agencies have escaped the disruption of the shutdown — most notably, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy. Lawmakers had previously approved funding for both until 30 September, the end of the 2019 budget cycle.

That allows them to continue operating normally, with one exception: the Superfund toxic-waste research programme at the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It was not included in the funding bill that covered the rest of the NIH.

Christmas crunch

The latest budget battle centres on President Donald Trump’s threat to veto any spending bill that does not include US$5 billion to build a wall along the US border with Mexico.

The House and Senate adjourned late on 21 December after last-minute negotiations collapsed, guaranteeing that a shutdown would begin at midnight local time in Washington DC. The Senate moved on 22 December to take a four-day break and return on 27 December, ensuring that the shutdown will continue through the Christmas holiday.

Similar budget skirmishes had previously shuttered the government twice in 2018. It is unclear how long the current shutdown might last. The previous government-funding gap, in February, was only a few hours long, but a shutdown in 2013 continued for 16 days. And a similarly timed shutdown that began on 16 December 1995 lasted for a record-setting 21 days.

Members of Congress are set to return home soon for the holidays, and a new Congress will convene in early January, when lawmakers who were elected in November take up their posts. The House of Representatives will switch from Republican to Democratic control, which is likely to complicate budget negotiations with Trump and the Republican-controlled Senate in the new year.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07836-6

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 22 December 2018: The story has been updated to reflect the start of the shutdown.

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