How the government shutdown is took its toll on science

Charlotte Mineo, Staff Writer

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During the 36-day government shutdown that began on December 22, 2018, nonessential government programs shuttered their doors. This included the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Included in the nearly 800,000 government workers that Vox reported going without pay were many federally-funded and federally employed researchers who were unable to continue their work.

Jeffrey Mervis reports for Science magazine that there will be an enormous backlog of work to completely restore the NSF to full capacity.

As stated on the NSF website, the agency was unable to respond to communications from scientists during the shutdown. As a result, the agency will need to sift through financial transactions from federally-funded grants, respond to questions and concerns from scientists and reopen websites that provide public data.

NSF and National Institutes of Health (NIH) peer-review boards, which determine who receives federal grant funding for their research proposals, were postponed or canceled.

The funding meetings are required by law to be announced to the Office of the Federal Registrar more than two weeks in advance.

Since the Federal Registrar closed during the shut-down, these announcements were impossible. More than 100 NSF review panels will need to be rescheduled, leaving funding in limbo for more than 2,000 proposals until those panels can meet.

As the NSF looks to approve new proposals, some scientists worry that the agency will be unwilling to reschedule the meetings, since their funding could easily dissipate if a new budget is not passed by February 15. This uncertainty could further delay research endeavors.

While many researchers are not directly funded by the NSF, some of their colleagues are. This prevents scientific collaborations from moving forward on their shared projects, and causes ripple effects throughout the scientific community.

Various conferences were cancelled because federal employees would be unable to attend, including the 30th Annual Interagency Forum on Invasive Species.

New grant applicants were not the only ones to feel the sting of the shutdown. Some time-sensitive studies were approved before the shutdown, but did not have funding made available at that time. This prevented the research from moving forward, and may make some studies far more difficult to conduct, if not impossible.

The research that’s being funded (or not) will be used to make informed decisions about pressing scientific issues, including medical and agricultural problems.

For some studies a delay in funding will simply push experiments and publications back by a month. However, for others, a 36 day delay may set researchers back by a year, or longer.

Entomologist Rufus Isaacs is collaborating with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), another agency impacted by the shutdown. Isaacs explains that his research will help formulate plans for the upcoming planting season. As a result, pausing his experiments for a few weeks or months “can mean that a whole year of progress is lost.”

Scientists and their families have also been impacted at a personal level. David Malakov reports for Science that NSF funded post-doctoral fellows went unpaid during the shut-down.

Researchers at the National Air and Space Administration (NASA), and the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (OAA) were sent home, leaving their science to stagnate.

The impact of the shut-down on the scientific community was probably not the first shutdown related topic on many minds.

Stories of unpaid bills and lives left in limbo were often far more compelling parts of the shutdown saga, and they are rightfully impactful and angering.

The shutdown serves as a reminder of the importance of scientific research, and the dangers of temporary, or permanent, lapses in research funding.