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Government Shutdown Hits Funding, Resources, and Morale in Science  

From missing paychecks to delayed grants to canceled travel, federal research is feeling the sting.

Jan 11, 2019
Carolyn Wilke

ABOVE: The National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia
MARIA B. BARNES/NSF

The standoff between Congress and President Donald Trump over funding for a wall on the southern border has left the US government partially shut down for three weeks with still no end in sight. Work at several agencies has ground to a halt and the effects are rippling across the research world. 

Here’s an overview of how the shutdown affects science:

Scientists are staying home 

  • Agencies are shuttered, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and parts of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Roughly 800,000 “non-essential” federal staff, including scientists at these agencies, are furloughed, on orders to stay home, and aren’t receiving pay, reports Nature.
  • Outside researchers are also feeling the sting. Those who rely on data, funding, and access to collections or resources aren’t receiving them. And scientists on NSF postdoctoral fellowships aren’t getting paid, reports Science.
  • Federal scientists can’t make long-planned trips to attend various scientific meetings during the shutdown. For instance, hundreds of scientists were forced to cancel travel to meetings of the American Astronomical Society and the American Meteorological Society taking place this month, according to Science.

Grant funding has dried up 

  • No grants have been awarded by the NSF since December 21, 2018. During this period of time last year (December 21, 2017 through January 11, 2018), the agency awarded 307 research grants with a total value of $101.3 millionreports ASBMB Policy Blotter.
  • This places a particular burden on early-career scientists, who depend on grants to help establish themselves, reports Eos
  • Delays in research grant funding could also mean some faculty members hesitate to take on new graduate students, according to Axios.
  • The uncertainty caused by the shutdown has left some federal scientists worried about their ability to recruit young scientists to come work for them, Nature states. Talented young researchers may instead be lured to the private sector, reports Axios.

Public safety is at risk

  • The Food and Drug Administration has drastically curtailed the number of food inspectors working and halted routine inspections of food-processing facilities, reports The Washington Post.
  • And yet, oil and gas companies are still receiving services from the Department of the Interior while the public is not. For example, the Bureau of Land Management accepted and published new drilling permits in several states, The Washington Post reports. 
  • All the while, visitors to Joshua Tree National Park, which is understaffed because of the shutdown, are destroying the iconic namesake trees.

Have shutdown stories to share? Send them our way: cwilke@the-scientist.com.

Correction (January 17): The story has been updated to clarify that the 800,000 employees furloughed during the shutdown are from across the government as opposed to only agencies involved in science. The Scientist regrets the error.

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