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The Government Shutdown Was Temporary, Its Damage to Science Permanent

Missed opportunities and gaps in data will have consequences for years to come
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Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

In many ways the federal government shutdown was a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when we give up on science for two weeks. The experiment is now over and the results are still incomplete. But so far, they are ugly.

In research labs across the country the shutdown had an immediate impact. As soon as it began, the National Institutes of Health suspended new clinical trials. Each week, the agency said, it had to turn away 200 patients, including 30 children, most of whom have cancer. For these patients, the NIH’s experimental treatments are often their last hope. Instead, patients were denied care. The rest of society was deprived of what doctors could have learned about new treatments. Thankfully, the NIH was able to continue the trials already in progress.

The shutdown also put public health in danger. Safety inspections were suspended across agencies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission prevents dangerous products like lead-laden toys and flammable sleepwear from making it into stores. For two weeks many of those products weren’t screened. Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended routine food inspections, including ones for imported seafood like fresh fish and shrimp, which can easily spoil.

For long-term research in many fields, the impact could be severe and lasting. Losing two weeks of data collection during a critical research period or two weeks of a key experiment that took months or years to set up will have repercussions for years.

Tom Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, told us that key tests for the James Webb Space Telescope science instruments had to be suspended due to the shutdown. The telescope, which will replace the aging Hubble, is one of NASA’s top three priorities. Greene and his colleagues at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center are using a low-temperature vacuum chamber to simulate the harsh conditions of space and ensure that satellite components will function in orbit. He’s worried that the shutdown will mean that important tests will not be done, increasing risk to the scientific return of the mission. Completing all the tests after the shutdown is over is not an option because doing so would delay the entire project at a cost of about a million dollars a day, money that NASA does not have.

Geologist Joseph Levy of the Institute for Geophysics at the Jackson School of Geosciences is one of about 3,000 U.S. researchers who travel to Antarctica each year to conduct research. He’s likely to lose half a year of data from melting permafrost because he can’t get his instruments into place in time. “It’s like a biography of the Earth with a couple of pages in the middle torn out,” he told the New York Times. One young researcher told me she was unlikely to make it to Antarctica this year, a prospect she called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She said her own disappointment pales in comparison to the sense of loss felt by researchers who have devoted years to studies that are now imperiled by the gap in data collection.

The shutdown is hurting scientists close to home, too. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist told us she had to cancel an emergency site visit to a contaminated water system in New Mexico. The scientist anticipates having to spend additional time plugging holes in the agency’s data on water quality, some of which has gone uncollected during the shutdown. Similarly, a federal wildlife biologist told us that his office had to suspend capturing endangered gray wolves to check on their population numbers. Because this is the prime season for tracking down the wolves, his study could be delayed a full year. In South Carolina at least 20 biology graduate students at the College of Charleston found that they couldn’t access their research materials, including lab animals and cell cultures, which were housed in a federal lab. Some of them may have to stay another semester—and pay more tuition—to complete their work.

The shutdown has certainly hurt morale and productivity at federal agencies. A U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist told us, “It seems time to consider other ways of paying my salary, if the government puts so little value on science.” Overall, scientists feel as if policy makers don’t appreciate the need for sustained, reliable investment in science. That hasn’t always been the case. In one of his inaugural addresses Dwight Eisenhower praised the “genius of our scientists” and discussed how scientific progress ensures our prosperity. But since the end of the cold war, political polarization has gotten worse and the long-running partnership between science and democracy has become strained.

Federally funded science allows us to do things as a country that we could never do alone. But the threat of shutdown, combined with inconsistent funding from Congress, leaves America’s scientific enterprise in the lurch.

Scientists aren’t members of just another interest group—they’re public servants in whom the country has invested considerable time and resources. When policy makers sideline science, they’re also sidelining our safety, health and ability to understand the world around us. Looking at the results of the shutdown, they should realize that this is an experiment not worth repeating.

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