US Government shutdown hits hard at scientists — and research in general

Biologists, astronomers, medical researchers, and many, many more scientists are forced to stay at home without pay due to the US Government shutdown. Already, there’s a big price to pay.

Image Credits: NPCA.

A US government shutdown occurs either when Congress fails to pass or the President refuses to sign legislation funding federal government operations and agencies. The current point of contention is the border wall that President Donald Trump wants to build. Trump requested $5.7 billion in funding, which Congress refuses to give. An impasse was reached, and Trump pushed on with the shutdown.

During government shutdowns, all but the essential government employees are furloughed (not working and not being paid). Lo and behold, most federal scientists aren’t considered essential. As a result, tens of thousands of researchers are sitting at home and many large-scale projects are threatened or at the very least, delayed.

For instance, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is sitting on a launch pad at Cape Canaveral. It’s ready for launch, but without sufficient NASA personnel to oversee it, the launch can’t take place. Hundreds of scientists from NOAA and the National Weather Service have been banned from attending the annual American Meteorological Society meeting this week — the largest meeting of its kind. The Environmental Protection Agency furloughed about 14,000 of its employees and is currently functioning only with 753 “essential” workers. Meanwhile, teams studying Atlantic right whales have decided to continue work, but are doing so without being paid — and the list goes on. For scientists, it’s not just living without an income for weeks (though that’s obviously a big problem) — but their work is also threatened.

Leslie Rissler, an evolutionary biologist and program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Tweeted that she had to apply for unemployment. Just 60 of the NSF’s roughly 2,000 employees are considered “essential”. For NOAA, almost half of researchers are still working, most of them working in weather forecast. In NASA, WHOI, anywhere you look, there are plenty of empty chairs. Applying for temp jobs or benefits is already becoming a necessity.

This is yet another reminder that political decisions have massive implications for science. Even “essential” workers are not being paid, but they are still asked to work.

It’s not the first time something like this happened: the 2013 government shutdown caused long-lasting damage in the scientific community and the echoes of that incident are still felt. With no end in sight for the current shutdown and an already troubling assault on science by the current administration, things don’t bode well for American scientists. For now, one can only hope things eventually start looking up.

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