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Grounded Rockets, Discarded Experiments: How a Government Shutdown Impacts Science

If lawmakers fail to reach a deal, federal agencies that power scientific research will shut down non-essential operations

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Scientists are bracing for major disruptions to their work as the United States barrels towards another government shutdown.

If lawmakers fail to reach a deal by Saturday, which seems increasingly likely, federal agencies that power scientific research like NASA and the National Institutes of Health will shut down operations deemed not essential to life or property. Thousands of scientists will be furloughed, grinding much of the federal research enterprise to a halt.

“Scientific research is 24/7, it’s always churning,” said Joanne Carney, Chief Government Relations Officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It doesn’t just stop and go… there are huge costs to delays.”

Grants don’t get reviewed and time-sensitive experiments are often postponed or canceled altogether. Non-government scientists can lose access to federally maintained databases they rely on for their own research. Important maintenance to equipment or facilities can stall —during the 35-day shutdown in 2018/2019, crucial Hubble telescope repairs were delayed.

“All shutdowns, short ones and long ones, result in a hit to science,” said Mary Woolley, CEO of Research!America, a health-research advocacy group. “They’re not only a waste of time and dollars, but there are ripple effects,” she said, especially as the frequency of shutdowns increases.

What research is impacted by a government shutdown?

If there’s a shutdown this weekend, its ultimate impact will depend on how long the shutdown lasts, and will vary from agency to agency. Some, like the Department of Energy, have residual funds that can be used to prop up services for several days. But others will have to immediately furlough many staff, while those deemed essential for maintaining crucial projects or scientific instruments must keep working without pay.

“You’ll have a skeleton crew that will start the shutdown process, making sure that the lights are out and people aren’t continuing to work,” said Carney. “Since this is a weekend, you might not notice till Monday comes around.”

But come Monday, furloughs will start piling up.

The National Science Foundation plans to prevent 1,487 of its 1,946 employees from working once short-term funds run dry. Staff who support research activities in the Arctic and Antarctic will still work, in case of emergencies in those extreme conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would stop most of its research activities, bringing many of its research vessels back to port. Staff crucial to weather forecasting and ongoing climate monitoring will continue working.

NASA will send home all but 1,288 of its 18,310 person workforce. Activities essential to maintaining the international space station or satellites will continue. But any new satellite launches will be delayed until funding resumes. The shutdown could dash plans to launch the Psyche mission on October 12, which aims to study an unusual asteroid between Mars and Jupiter. The agency is reportedly planning to request a waiver to continue if the government is still shut down.

Health and Human Services, which oversees the NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will send home roughly 42% of its staff, including more than 15,000 NIH workers. Those who care for patients, laboratory animals or important cell lines stay on, and research into developing vaccines and therapeutics will continue for as long as funds last.

Ongoing clinical trials are generally safe too, but won’t recruit new patients, many of whom are seeking care for life-threatening diseases. “It’s a tragedy for potential patients to be told you just have to wait because our government is dysfunctional,” said Woolley.

Other key health-related programs will continue, including CDC efforts to monitor new disease outbreaks, and Food and Drug Administration drug and medical device reviews. But the longer the shutdown drags on, the more imperiled these essential services become.

Long-term impacts on the scientific workforce

Government shutdowns weren’t really a thing before 1980, and have become an increasingly common fixture of American politics and governance. Beyond the specific impacts of any given shutdown, the uncertainty they stir up has serious consequences for science in the US.

“At a macro level, what kind of signal does a shutdown send to early career researchers or students considering a career that’s linked to federal funding,” said Woolley. “They’re getting the message that science isn’t a priority,” she said, which could ultimately dissuade people from entering the field.

Such disruptions could also dissuade foreign-born scientists, who make up nearly a quarter of the US science and technology workforce, from coming.

“If you’re a foreign national, maybe you’re starting to question whether or not you want to stay in the United States, as other countries are becoming more desirable in terms of investing in research.”