The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As shutdown continues, so does damage to U.S. science

Neither bear nor rattlesnake nor hurricane has prevented ecosystem ecologist Jeff Atkins from collecting water samples in Shenandoah National Park. But a recent letter from the government did what wildlife and storms could not: For the first time since the early 1980s, the monitoring program, which traces the forest’s recovery from acid rain, has a gap in its weekly data. Because the project uses federal money on federal land, the data point became another casualty of the ongoing shutdown.

“Losing that one point is going to be really detrimental,” said Atkins, a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University who usually takes samples of Shenandoah’s streams on weekends. “Now I have a hole in the data set. It’s just a needless problem.” Atkins is one of the many scientists whose work has been hobbled by the 18-day shutdown, which could last “months or even years,” President Trump recently threatened.

Of the 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay, thousands are researchers. These include agency scientists at the Agriculture Department, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, which were separately funded through September, are almost entirely safe from this shutdown.) Furloughed government scientists are banned from any form of work activity — they cannot so much as open an email.

“The current government shutdown has far-reaching effects that put America’s scientific progress at risk. While there are reports that agencies such as NOAA and the USGS are still issuing alerts about weather and natural hazards, much of the scientific research into how to prevent these kinds of disasters has stalled,” said Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union. “This shutdown could affect the EPA’s ability to meet deadlines for assessing chemicals, and NOAA isn’t able to track fish for commercial harvesting or endangered species to protect them from passing ships.”

She added, “Until funding is secured, many scientists employed by the U.S. government aren’t able to make important observations or analyze data to protect life, property and ecosystems here at home and abroad."

A small crew maintains the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Ill., which is normally staffed at 250 and is the largest research center run by the USDA. Studies there exploring new treatments for antibiotic-resistant bacteria have stopped. Employees exempted from the furlough are allowed only to keep the plants and other specimens alive.

“President Trump’s shutdown impacts the lab’s employees who are not able to work and are not getting paid,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a statement. Research in agriculture and health, “including preliminary testing building on a recent discovery at the lab that amplifies the effectiveness of antibiotics,” the senator said, “has been put on hold.”

At the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which coordinates drug policy across the government, only three people are still working out of a staff of about 80. They include James Carroll, the agency’s director, known informally as the nation’s “drug czar.” The Senate confirmed him last week.

The office is largely responsible for developing drug policy and strategy, and it administers two grant programs. One sends money to state and local law enforcement agencies in “high-intensity drug-trafficking areas.” The other helps support community groups working to curb youth substance abuse.

As The Washington Post reported last month, scientists will miss critical research windows, such as the emergence of seasonal insects or rare celestial phenomena, as the shutdown continues. Those missed opportunities and delays are stacking up. At the start of a new year, NOAA releases U.S. average temperatures for the previous year. The data for 2018 are not yet available.

Scientists employed or funded by the federal government will also suffer the lack of paychecks. Leslie Rissler, program director for the NSF’s environmental biology division, wrote on Twitter on Jan 3. that she had filed for unemployment.

Kevin Johnson, a molecular ecologist and postdoctoral researcher at Louisiana State University, realized on Jan. 2 that his monthly stipend from the National Science Foundation wouldn’t be available during the shutdown. Right away, he contacted his landlords in Baton Rouge, who generously told him not to worry. But he’s unsure how long that offer will stand; his landlords are a younger couple who depend on his rent payment to help pay their mortgage.

Johnson, speaking by phone as he and his fellow laboratory members drove back to Louisiana after presenting research at a meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Tampa, said if he doesn’t get paid by Jan. 21, he’ll start to owe $300 in late charges on top of unpaid bills. Right now, he and his wife, a graduate student, are dipping into savings and putting everything on three credit cards.

“I’m just going to work as usual,” Johnson said, who added that he does feel lucky because he knows he will eventually get back pay, unlike some colleagues. “With science, you’re trying to build up your research in order to publish, in order to be attractive to be hired for a job — and if I were to stop working and wait until I got paid, it would only hurt me more.”

Johnson studies how genes and the environment interact in oysters as they respond to changes in salinity — a big question for the oyster farming industry after natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and as rainfall patterns have shifted because of climate change. He hopes his work will help scientists and oyster farmers understand how to make oysters more resilient.

January is a critical time for the process by which scientists receive federal funding, via agencies such as the NSF and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. NIFA grants, which support long-term agriculture, are very likely stuck in the review process. Likewise, during the shutdown, the NSF cannot provide new funding or review new grant proposals. Although about 1,400 agency employees have been furloughed, the shutdown’s most palpable effects have been felt this week.

One hundred nonfederal scientists were scheduled to convene on panels to review hundreds of grant proposals on research topics such as earth sciences, polar programs and chemistry. The scientists who review those grants will have to cancel travel plans and may have to work any rescheduled reviews around their teaching and research schedules. Researchers waiting to hear about whether they receive funding will face uncertainty and delays.

“To try and minimize the amount of impacts this will have, NSF plans to make decisions on a daily basis for canceling and rescheduling panels,” NSF spokeswoman Amanda Greenwell said.

A California researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the privacy surrounding grant reviews, said he was scheduled to travel to Washington to review proposals early next week. He said he had no idea yet whether the panel, which will recommend which research projects have the most scientific merit, will take place. He also can’t access the electronic system that he would use to review the grant proposals in advance and said he needs at least two days before the panel, which is scheduled to start Monday.

Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, calculated how much funding NSF provided through Jan. 8 last year: $42 million in 2018, vs. $0 in 2019.

“This is the American scientific enterprise that’s being strangled, for no good reason, through this process,” Corb said. “This is going to ripple through science this year and next year, and it’s silly for the NSF and all these other agencies to be held up over [a] political dispute.”

In lecture halls nationwide, lessons are diminished. Mary Abercrombie, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who teaches earth science and environmental chemistry, uses information from NASA, NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency websites in her lectures. Those websites are down, with NOAA citing the “lapse in appropriation” as the cause. “I’m sure I’ve got lots of company in many, many classrooms,” Abercrombie said. “This is going to be terrible!”

Conferences were emptier, too, as federal researchers were unable to travel to scientific meetings. Hundreds of scientists could not attend the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting in Phoenix. More than 100 federal scientists scheduled to attend an International Soil Science Society of America meeting, which took place Jan. 5 through Jan. 9, did not.

The shutdown dealt “a significant blow” to federal soil research, said Ellen Bergfeld, chief executive of the Soil Science Society of America. “Soil science is understood globally to be a fundamental component of national security — as the resource for life as we know it. . . . Our U.S. federal scientists deserve to be able to communicate, disseminate their information and learn from their colleagues in this crucial area of science for the benefit of all Americans.” A scientific tour of federal lands where California wildfires have altered soil ecosystems was canceled.

At the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, hundreds of federal scientists were missed. The society estimated that roughly 15 percent of attendees — as many as 450 people — were unable to attend because of the shutdown.

Presentations by invited federal researchers were canceled. Academic scientists had to scramble to serve as understudies for government colleagues who were supposed to present the results of their research. Committees to award prizes and plan future research were short several members.

“It’s been chaotic,” said Rafaella Margutti, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University who was asked at the last minute to fill in on panels about the future of the Hubble Space Telescope and a new alert system for tracking fleeting celestial phenomena.

The majority of those missing were NASA employees; about 95 percent of the agency’s staff members are furloughed. AAS was forced to cancel an agency town hall meeting, which usually involves hundreds of people, as well as special sessions to discuss research priorities and plans for upcoming telescopes.

The society urged its members to contact their representatives in Congress to demand a federal budget. And at the meeting’s opening session, scientists recorded a video message to their absent government colleagues.

“We miss you,” AAS President Megan Donahue said. “We’re facing a world where science is not always at the table.”

Read more:

Disruptive, disappointing, chaotic: Shutdown upends scientific research

Hundreds of scientists to miss world’s largest weather conference because of federal shutdown

Federal workers in Washington aren’t the only ones going without pay