Scientists relieved but wary as US shutdown ends

Federal researchers head back to work after politicians approve deal to reopen government for three weeks.

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The U.S. Capitol building

Leaders of the US House and Senate have reached a deal with President Trump to re-open the government.Credit: Alex Edelman/Getty

The US government has reopened — temporarily — after a historic 35-day shutdown that paralysed the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and other key science agencies.

Many federal scientists will head back to work on Monday, 28 January, but it could take weeks or months for their agencies to return to normal operations. Complicating that recovery is the chance that the government could shut down again next month.

The deal that President Donald Trump announced, and that he and Congress approved, on 25 January funds the government for three weeks, until 15 February. Researchers in and outside of the federal government greeted the shutdown’s end with a mix of wariness and relief.

“I’m a little nervous that we could be seeing this again in three weeks, but right now I am too happy to worry about it,” says a fish biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who asked for anonymity to prevent retaliation by her agency. “We’ve been worrying for five weeks so it’s just nice to take a break.”

“I think this is good news,” says a researcher who studies natural hazards at the US Geological Survey, and asked to remain anonymous to prevent retaliation by his agency. “The key here is whether or not we will receive missing paychecks during this time, and trying to prepare for what happens three weeks from now. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

A heavy toll

The shutdown dragged on two weeks longer than any other in US history, and its effects on science have been profound. It has interrupted studies of everything from California’s coastal fisheries to clinical trials of experimental drugs, and key federal data sets have been pulled offline. Employees at many science agencies were forced to stay at home without pay for more than a month, and academic researchers have been deprived of key research funding.

The shutdown has also dented many researchers’ morale, prompting scientists at all career stages to rethink working for the federal government.

“I have had a wonderful career at the USDA, and believe in its mission,” says a senior scientist at the US Department of Agriculture. “There used to be a feeling of stability, and now the stability is gone, in addition to eroding budgets and increasing bureaucratic demands. I know some people will hit the tipping point.”

One senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency has mixed feelings about returning to work, given the uncertainty about future funding and what he sees as the Trump administration’s general hostility to science. “The shutdown overlays anxiety about what we can work on, what we can’t, how our work is valued, or more likely not,” he says.

Then there is Karen Osborn, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, who spent the shutdown on furlough, or enforced leave, as a ‘non-essential’ government employee. She missed a long-planned research trip to the Turks and Caicos to study creatures in marine pools, and has been browsing job ads during her forced break from research.

For now, Osborn is savouring a bit of good news: with the government open again, she can travel to northwest Africa in early February to conduct time-sensitive research on deep-sea animals. Osborn is scheduled to fly out of Washington DC on 1 February and return on 25 February.

“As long as we open on the 1st and I can get on the plane, I am not coming back” if the government shuts down again, she says.

Will history repeat?

The recovery from the shutdown is complicated by the risk that the government could close again in February, if politicians fail to resolve an ongoing disagreement over Trump’s demands to construct a wall along the US border with Mexico.

“An astute colleague just offered some good advice: better do your taxes in the next 3 weeks just in case we get another #shutdown,” tweeted Amy Freitag, a social scientist who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, minutes after Trump’s speech announcing the temporary funding deal.

Anne Jefferson, a hydrologist at Kent State University in Ohio, offered a similarly frank take on the news. “Woohoo, the government will reopen!” she tweeted. “Oh crap, they’re only funding it for 3 weeks for now. Where does that leave us as this installment of #ScienceShutdown winds down?”

Jefferson predicts a “frantic scramble to get those really urgent and important things done” as government agencies come back online, especially with the threat of another shutdown looming. She’ll be revising the syllabus for a hydrology course she’s teaching, to reflect the restoration of federal weather data sets that went offline when the government closed.

“We need Congress to fund the entire government for the remainder of this fiscal year,” says Jefferson, who receives funding from the NSF. “Only with dependable, continued investment in federal science, natural resource management, and environmental protection can American science move forward.”

Dusting off the cobwebs

No matter what happens, it could take weeks or even months for many federal science agencies to return to normal operations. NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said on Twitter on 24 January that the agency will delay consideration of new applications to one of its main research grant programmes by at least 60 days after the shutdown’s end.

And there are more prosaic considerations as well. A memo posted by NASA on 26 January outlines what employees should do if their identification badges or computer passwords expired during the five-week shutdown.

Meanwhile, roughly 90 grant-review panels scheduled to meet at the NSF this month have been cancelled. The agency has also cancelled all panels on 28 January, as it gets back on its feet — and says that it expects to postpone panels scheduled for 29 and 30 January, or conduct them virtually.

And not everyone will be made whole. Although politicians passed a law that guarantees federal employees back pay to cover the shutdown period, most government contractors will not be paid for that time. This category includes most of the workers in the NSF’s information-technology department, who last year were converted from employee to contractor status.

Matthew Larsen, a geologist and director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, Panama, says that the shutdown’s effects will hurt the Smithsonian Institution’s budget for the rest of the federal funding year, which ends on 30 September. Larsen says that the shutdown has cost the Smithsonian an estimated US$1 million per week in lost sales at its museums’ shuttered stores and restaurants.

Despite the looming threat of another government shutdown in February, Larsen says that he and his colleagues “will do our best to get back to normal and hope” for a full-year funding deal.

Nature 565, 545-546 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00304-9

Additional reporting by Jane J. Lee.

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