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NASA postdocs hit by shutdown get emergency lifeline

Contractor that runs prestigious space-agency programme will loan researchers money to replace missing paychecks.

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NASA is one of the US government agencies affected by the ongoing shutdown.Credit: Loren Elliott/Getty

One of NASA’s most prestigious fellowships for young scientists — its postdoctoral programme — ran out of money on 17 January owing to the ongoing US government shutdown. The contractor that operates the programme will loan the 181 fellows the balance of their stipends for January, in the hope that NASA will pay it back once the agency re-opens.

“We have their backs, and we’re doing our best to keep them out of financial trouble until this is over,” says Nicholas White, senior vice-president for science at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Columbia, Maryland, which manages the fellowship programme.

But that message didn’t quite get through on 16 January, when USRA sent a notice to all fellows that money would run out on the next day. Panic erupted on Twitter, Slack and Facebook. One former fellow who now works for NASA — and is himself on unpaid leave because of the shutdown — set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the fellows.

USRA followed up with an apologetic e-mail to the fellows on 17 January, confirming that they could request the loan. “I’m still upset at the late notice of all this, but I do think @USRAedu is showing some humanity and going beyond the bare minimum here,” Ethan Kruse, a fellow working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, tweeted after receiving the e-mail.

The experience underscores how the government shutdown is throwing some researchers’ lives into chaos, with unexpected consequences multiplying as the closure drags on, week after week.

Uncertain future

Fellows are paid a stipend at the end of each month. Normally, the money comes from NASA and is routed through USRA.

Now, with no NASA disbursements, USRA will pay roughly US$500,000 to make up the difference from 18 January until the end of the month. If needed, it will also cover the fellows’ payments at the end of February, which will come to just over $1 million for that month, says White.

“Beyond that, we will see,” he says. “We’ll take this one step at a time. Hopefully it’s not going to go on that long.”

Many of the NASA fellows are foreign citizens on J-1 visas, who would have to leave the United States within 30 days if they lost their jobs. “Our understanding is that the approach we’re taking means that the J-1s can continue uninterrupted,” says White.

That doesn't reduce the anxiety of one fellow on a J-1 visa, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid any potential retaliation. "This is a big point of concern for many of the postdocs," the person says. "With this kind of visa we cannot look for another job. That's really, really scary."

Fellows will retain their health insurance, White says, and be able to extend their fellowship by a length equivalent to that of the shutdown if they are unable to work.

NASA has postdoctoral fellows in several of its directorates. The ones affected are in its science directorate. Each person is paired with a NASA-funded researcher to work on projects on topics such as astrobiology or exoplanet research.

Waiting game

Eva Bodman, a fellow working at Arizona State University in Tempe, says that she is doing better than most because she is not located at a NASA centre, most of which are closed. But the shutdown has indirectly disrupted her career.

In December, she submitted the paperwork to renew her fellowship contract, which will run out in February. But there is no one working at NASA who can process it. “There’s an increasing chance of it not being done in time,” she says. Bodman is also waiting for reimbursement for her travel to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Washington, earlier this month.

“This whole shutdown has made me seriously rethink my career goals,” she says. “I used to think of working permanently at a NASA centre. But now I’m like, if the federal jobs aren’t that stable, do I really want to be at the mercy of Congress every single year?”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00205-x
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