The US government shutdown and science

Reading the news after being off-grid for a few days rarely brings pleasant surprises. I just came back from a hiking trip in southern Sweden to find that my country’s government had been shut down until budget and debt issues could be resolved. I understood that the overall impact on our country’s administration and economy would not be insignificant, but I also naively thought that the immediate impact on me, as a scientist living abroad, would be minimal. Not so.

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Every summer in my part of Colorado there is a ‘chainless race’, where people race several kilometers down a mountain on a bicycle with no gears (and sometimes no brakes). Gravity pulls everyone inevitably downward. Some contestants steer their way safely to the finish line, while others lose control and crash in bloody spectacles. This shutdown’s impact on science feels somewhat similar.

The first thing I realized was that my educational outreach programs were going to face challenges. We are currently building the University of Arizona’s Sky School, a residential science education program with a campus on the summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Coronado National Forest. The forest is administered by the US Forest Service, which has now furloughed its employees. We have a large group of students coming next week, and it was not immediately clear if we would legally be able to take a group up the Forest Service road to the mountain, or even access any trails in the forest. Our director had a difficult time getting in touch with a ranger to have these questions answered, since the agency is closed, but we just found out that we will still be able to run a restricted set of programs for a large school group coming next week. The longer-term situation remains very unclear.

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The second thing I realized is that I can’t easily get in touch with other scientists. I am leading a climate change project that involves the Smithsonian Institution – and they are now also closed until further notice. Work emails don’t reach my collaborators, and it’s unclear that even if they did, those people should still be spending time on these projects.

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The third thing I realized is that the National Science Foundation is no longer operating. That means they are no longer funding new research, reviewing proposals, or making payments on existing research grants. I am lucky and unlucky here. On one hand, my NSF grant has already been disbursed to my university and is still being administered by that non-federal organization. This means I can still spend money and conduct research. But on the other hand, I was planning to apply for a three-year postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by NSF. The shutdown means that this application can’t be submitted, and depending on the timeline, may be cancelled entirely. There are many other funding proposals for scientists at all levels with deadlines this time of year, and I imagine that there will be ripple effects on research for the next year or two as these delays and cancellations propagate.

These are just a few personal examples of the trickle-down effects of the shutdown. More established scientists and larger institutions are obviously facing more serious challenges. National Institutes of Health – funded hospitals are turning people away, for example. The relationship between money, science, and societal benefit is not simple, but I think it’s clear that spending more money creates more benefit, and spending no money creates no benefit at all.

In the chainless race, the losers, who crash, are the ones who want to win too badly. The winners enjoy the ride and have a friendly time with the other participants. I hope our politicians can also find a more friendly way forward that will benefit our country and also our science.

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