Friday, December 28, 2018

Disruptive, disappointing, chaotic: Shutdown upends scientific research

By Ben Guarino, Sarah Kaplan, Angela Fritz and Carolyn Y. Johnson
December 28 at 3:19 PM


In research labs and at field sites across the world, the week-long government shutdown has ground scientific progress to a halt. Thousands of scientists are among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors who must stay at home without pay. The furlough is expected to persist into the new year, which would mean a rocky start to 2019 for American science.

The partial shutdown, caused by President Trump’s rejection of a bipartisan spending deal that did not allocate billions of dollars for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, also curtailed scientific operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Agriculture Department, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey. Furloughed government scientists are prohibited from checking on experiments, performing observations, collecting data, conducting tests or sharing their results.

If the budget impasse extends into the new year, scientists say, it could harm critical research.


Alice Harding, an astrophysicist at Goddard Space Flight Center who is among roughly 15,000 furloughed NASA employees, worries about missing rare astronomical phenomena — starbursts proceed with or without a federal budget. Just days before the government closed, she and her colleagues at the Fermi space telescope observed a pulsar flashing in an unprecedented way. She scrambled to get a follow-up observation using NASA’s NICER instrument in her last days at work.

“But if the government ends up shutting down for more than a week, we won’t get a second one,” Harding said.

Crucial research windows will slam shut on Earth, too. A crop-eating pest called the brown marmorated stink bug emerges only in the spring. Scientists must prepare for the insects' annual debut, and missing it would set researchers back an entire year, the Entomological Society of America warned. “A lot of incredible science happens in our government every day,” Robert K.D. Peterson, the organization’s president, said in a statement. “But when the government shuts down, even partially, that work is derailed.”


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