U.S. Environmental Protection Agency employees head back to work

An environmental activist greeted workers returning to the Environmental Protection Agency on 28 January with cinnamon buns.Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

A refrigerator overflowing with dead honey bees and larvae greeted Jay Evans when he returned to his lab at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Beltsville, Maryland, on 28 January.

Evans, an entomologist, is one of the thousands of federal scientists who were locked out of their labs during the longest US government shutdown in history. “We are very backed up,” he says of the USDA lab, which monitors bee pathogens and parasites. “And some samples were sitting at the local post office, and they are a little degraded. They’ve been sitting for a month and a half.”

Across the government, scientists have returned to dusty offices, expired passwords and five weeks of unread e-mail. Only now, as researchers scramble to make up for lost time, are the shutdown’s full effects on science beginning to emerge: the experiments that must be rescheduled or scrapped, the grant cycles that will be delayed for weeks or months, the sense of security that has disappeared.

Evans estimates that it could take the USDA centre in Beltsville a couple of months to catch up on the backlog of honey bees while processing new specimens sent in by beekeepers seeking help to diagnose their ailing hives.

The forecast is less certain at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Director France Córdova warned returning workers that “we will not be able to conduct ‘business as usual’” — in part because the government could shut down again in three weeks, when a temporary funding deal will expire.

Business unusual

“We will start with the most pressing of issues,” Córdova wrote in a message posted to the agency’s website on 28 January. They include making payments to grant recipients and contractors, rescheduling grant-review panels and funding graduate-student and postdoctoral fellowships, she said.

Just 60 of the NSF’s roughly 2,000 employees were allowed to continue working during the shutdown. The agency now faces the prospect of rescheduling more than 90 grant-review panels that were cancelled during the shutdown. It also cancelled panels set for 28 January, the first day back at work for many of its employees, and might scrap others later this week. The NSF has told scientists that the application period for at least 11 funding opportunities will be extended.

Some research scuppered by the government closure cannot easily be rescheduled. When the shutdown started, a team at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had just begun to study the effects of changing ocean chemistry on tiny invertebrate animals that live in waters off the northeastern United States. The animals used in the EPA study were fed and cared for during the shutdown, but no one monitored how many died or reproduced — jeopardizing the overall experiment.

Now, it is too cold to gather more animals and restart the study, says a postdoctoral scientist working on the project. “To have lost all of this is a big step back,” says the postdoc, who is not authorized to speak with the press. He had hoped to finish collecting and analysing data from the experiment before his fellowship ends, four months from now. “It’s hard to plan to move forward when the worry in our minds is that this shutdown will happen again,” the postdoc says. “It’s a terrible position to be in.”

One down, one to go?

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) campus in Boulder, Colorado, employees who braved icy roads to return to work on 28 January were welcomed back with doughnuts, fruit and coffee. Many are already planning for the next shutdown.

Richard Saltus, a geologist at the NOAA facility, was able to keep working remotely during the shutdown because he is affiliated with the University of Colorado Boulder. To make future shutdowns easier, he is completing paperwork this week that will allow him to connect his NOAA-issued laptop to the agency's data servers when he is out of the office.

Saltus says that some of his colleagues are looking into alternate office space around town that would allow them to keep working during future shutdowns, with better Internet access than they can get at home or in coffee shops.

Nearby, at the US Geological Survey’s office in Fort Collins, Colorado, ecosystems ecologist Jill Baron is finding that some scientists’ interest in applying for federal grants has withered like the leaves of her office ficus plant.

Baron is co-director of the John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis, which gives interdisciplinary research groups money, unlimited computing power and staff support as they explore a single environmental problem — such as the ecological and geological effects of taking down dams across the United States.

“I will not be submitting a Powell Center proposal this year,” one scientist wrote in an e-mail to colleagues that was forwarded to Baron. “I want to apologize for taking your time, but not moving forward with this. The government shutdown has put too much uncertainty into this process.”

“I’m just very sad,” Baron says. “A number of people in my agency are older, including myself. And so it would be easy to retire, which I don’t want to do, because I love what I do. One of the considerations that many of us have spoken about is just walking away.”

Baron has been a government employee for more than four decades, and the large ficus in her office is almost as old. After five weeks without water, “the leaves are still green, but they’re dead, dead, dead. I could knock ’em off,” she says. “I’m actually going to keep this plant here as a reminder.”