Thousands of U.S scientists are heading into their fourth week of enforced leave, the result of a prolonged government shutdown that began on 22 December.
The Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are among the science agencies that have stopped processing grant applications, cut off access to key data sets and temporarily shuttered federal labs and offices.
With budget negotiations between President Donald Trump and Congress stalled, there is a growing chance that the government will remain closed until at least 12 January. That would make this shutdown the longest in U.S. history. Nature examines how the funding fight is stymieing scientific research, and how the damage could grow over time.
Some data are now lost forever
Some experiments can be postponed, or halted and later restarted, with ease. But for researchers who study the natural world, deferring a study can put crucial observations tied to seasonal cycles forever out of reach.
Rolf Peterson, a wildlife ecologist at Michigan Technical University in Houghton, oversees the world’s longest-running study of predators and prey — the wolves and moose of Isle Royale in Lake Superior. Each winter since 1958, researchers have spent weeks on the isolated 544-square-kilometre island charting the animals’ changing fortunes. But now the iconic study is in jeopardy, because the National Park Service, which manages the island, has cut off access to it during the shutdown.
The scientists are running out of time to collect data this winter: once the snow melts, they might no longer be able to find the wolves and moose, which are easiest to track by their hoof and paw prints. “We could weather a few days’ delay without losing too much, but every day after that costs a lot,” Peterson says. “At some point, the scientific continuity is lost.”
The situation is particularly painful, he adds, because scientists recently transplanted three female wolves to Isle Royale from Minnesota in an effort to bolster genetic diversity. The island’s wolf population had dwindled in recent years to just two animals—a father and daughter. Only by travelling to Isle Royale can Peterson’s team determine whether the newcomers are mating with the island’s lone male, and if the resurgent wolf pack is affecting the moose population.
Peterson estimates that this year’s expedition has cost about US$300,000 in private and public money, including non-refundable airfare and $100,000 of GPS-enabled moose collars. “The collars are sitting outside my house right now,” Peterson says. “We just need to put them on the moose.”
And in California, a crucial survey of the state’s fisheries has been postponed because a research ship owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—the RV Reuben Lasker — is confined to port in San Diego. The ship was meant to have headed out on 6 January to collect data on ocean denizens such as plankton and whales, along with ocean physics, for the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI).
Further delays could make it hard for scientists to compare data from this year’s planned winter survey to previous observations, because the team won’t be able to monitor some seasonal events, such as the spawning of certain fishes. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to do a delayed or truncated cruise or—likely at this point—we’re going to have to abandon this quarter’s data altogether,” says Brice Semmens, the director of CalCOFI, which is run as a partnership between NOAA, the California state government and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.
If the cruise is cancelled, it would be the first time in decades that the 70-year-old CalCOFI project has missed its winter fisheries survey. The loss would be incalculable, Semmens says: “With monitoring programmes, you don’t know why the data is valuable until it’s valuable.”
A second wave of closures looms
Many government science agencies started winding down their operations within hours of the shutdown’s start. But another round of closures—this time, of government-funded research centres and equipment run by contractors—could begin in the coming weeks.
One set of facilities at risk is the astronomical observatories funded by the NSF and operated by contractors. They include the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which includes the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and the Gemini Observatory, which maintains twin telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. All have money to last a few weeks more, but do not know how they can stay open beyond that point.
The first thing to shut down at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) would be the dishes of the Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico, says director Anthony Beasley. The NRAO is poised to run out of money at the end of January without an influx of cash from the NSF, and would begin closing down the array and putting staff on furlough—or unpaid leave—during the first week in February. It would continue to meet its financial obligations to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in northern Chile, however, because the NSF must adhere to its legal agreements with the Chilean government. “The penalties for not making payroll there are extraordinary,” says Beasley.
But all hope is not lost. Some government science agencies, including the NSF and NASA, are searching for loopholes that would allow them to continue doling out cash to keep big projects and research centres running.
One project that is poised to benefit from such efforts is NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was set to run out of money on 22 January. The spacecraft has spent nearly 20 years spying on black holes, quasars and supernovae and costs about $1 million per week to operate. It cannot be left unattended because its thermal insulation is degrading. Unless mission controllers regularly change Chandra’s orientation with respect to the Sun, some of the craft’s parts could overheat.
To prevent damage to Chandra, the Smithsonian Institution—which operates the observatory for NASA—will cover any shortfall with what is known as risk funding, says Belinda Wilkes, director of the Chandra X-Ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That should keep the observatory running for about two months, she says. Wilkes also expects NASA to seek legal permission to keep Chandra operating, on the grounds that itis valuable government property that could be harmed without intervention.
Across the country in Boulder, Colorado, the non-profit consortium UNAVCO is searching for ways to keep open the geoscience observatories that it operates for the NSF. Its equipment measures how the ground is moving, and its real-time data streams aid natural-hazard monitoring efforts such as California’s ShakeAlert early-warning system for earthquakes.
At one point, UNAVCO estimated that it could run out of money late next week. If that happened, it might have to stop feeding data into the ShakeAlert system, which could make early warnings of California quakes less accurate. UNAVCO is now talking to the NSF and its other sponsors in search of ways to keep its work going.
Shutdowns eat the young
Early-career scientists are among the most vulnerable to the disruptions in research and loss of pay that a shutdown can bring.
Bob Literman, a computational biologist at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, is supported by an NSF postdoctoral fellowship, and until the shutdown ends, he is not being paid. Because he is considered an independent contractor rather than an employee of the federal government or the university, Literman is not eligible to apply for unemployment benefits.
Now he and his wife, who works at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, are scrambling to find the money to pay their bills and support their 21-month-old son, Rubin. “We definitely can’t make it out of January,” Literman says. “Doing some bad back-of-the-napkin math, it’s going to fall apart at the end of the month, when the car bill is due.”
In a matter of weeks, his plum fellowship has transformed into a financial crisis. “We came to this right out of graduate school. We haven’t really built up any sort of a nest egg, so we’re really floating on fumes,” Literman says of his life in Rhode Island. “That grant was going to take us from poor graduate students to real members of society. And now, not having guaranteed money to feed my son is terrifying.”
Then there is Danica Lombardozzi, a global ecologist who has worked as a project scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder since 2015, after finishing a postdoctoral fellowship. She faces a 50% pay cut if the shutdown persists beyond next week. That’s because NCAR’s parent, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), relies on the NSF for about 60% of its $217-million budget—and the money has stopped flowing.
If the shutdown continues until 19 January, UCAR could be forced to put in place a contingency plan that would give most of its 1,300 employees a stark choice: receiving half their normal wage, with the balance paid once the government reopens, or being furloughed so they can apply for unemployment benefits. If the government has not re-opened by mid-February, UCAR will begin broad, mandatory furloughs.
“We are trying our best to make sure that people are working as long as possible,” says UCAR president Antonio Busalacchi. “If people are furloughed, they aren’t working and they are not going to get any back pay.”
Lombardozzi is already deferring large purchases, such as refilling the propane tank that provides fuel to cook and heat her home. “This makes me wonder and worry about career viability, but I guess it’s a risk that you have to take,” she says. “Academic jobs are few and far between as well.”
The effects stretch beyond the United States
What happens in America doesn’t stay in America. Researchers in other countries are already feeling the shutdown strain.
An international team of geophysicists has delayed the release of an updated model of Earth’s magnetic field—data that underlie all modern navigation, affecting everyone from military planners to smartphone users. Scientists at NOAA were among those who had scrambled to update the model a year early, after observing unexpectedly large shifts in the location of the north magnetic pole. But the shutdown forced them to postpone the model’s release from 15 January to 30 January—assuming the shutdown is over by then.
And in Vancouver, Canada, climate researchers working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report are meeting without several U.S. government scientists. The absent researchers include Ko Barrett, a deputy assistant administrator at NOAA who is the IPCC’s vice-chair, and 4 of the 20 primary authors from the IPCC working group that assesses the physical science of climate change.
“Their expertise, insights and voices are missing,” says working-group co-chair Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a climatologist at the Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.
The shutdown has also disrupted plans by the government of Canada’s Ontario province to transport a pair of wolves and their pups across Lake Superior to Isle Royale, the home of the iconic predator–prey study. Canadian scientists want to move the animals from Michipocoten, a 184-square-kilomere island in Ontario, because they are in danger of starving after wolves killed all the caribou there.
Taking the wolves to Isle Royale would help the animals to survive, add genetic diversity to the wolf population on the U.S. island and let researchers watch how the Canadian animals interact with their new neighbours. “It’s a bit of an experiment unfolding,” says Brent Patterson, a research scientist at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry in Peterborough, who is managing the relocation.
The Canadian ministry is trying to determine whether it can access Isle Royale without cooperation from the U.S. government. Because wolves breed in late January, the latest that the Michipocoten animals could be moved this winter is late February, to avoid endangering any pregnant wolves.
The personal toll on researchers is rising
As the shutdown goes on, government scientists are struggling to keep up their morale—and some are rethinking their career plans.
“It’s become old to be used as an unwilling political pawn in these games of chicken,” says a mid-career federal scientist in Arizona, who asked for anonymity out of fear that his agency would retaliate against him for speaking out. The scientist and his spouse, who is also a government employee, have put one of their vehicles on the market and identified some small investments they could sell if the shutdown drags on.
“We are also looking at making some serious changes to our future, including one or both of us leaving the federal civil-service career track,” says the scientist, who has been browsing job ads on LinkedIn.
At the U.S. Geological Survey, a researcher who studies natural hazards says that his bosses seem to have more leeway to determine who can work during this shutdown than they had during a 16-day shutdown in 2013. But the scientist, who asked to remain anonymous to prevent retaliation by his agency, is angry about the “unconscionable” toll that the funding fight is having on government contractors—who are neither paid during shutdowns, nor eligible for back pay after they end—and low-level agency employees.
Because the researcher is considered an ‘essential’ employee, he has been ordered to work part-time during the shutdown to monitor natural hazards. But he is forbidden from doing any research until the government reopens, which means he cannot hire contractors for summer fieldwork or apply to present research at an upcoming conference. “People are feeling their identity is on hold,” the scientist says. “It’s like saying you’re a musician but you can’t play music any more.”
Shutdowns can have lasting effects on a researcher’s career. The 2013 shutdown prompted planetary astronomer Franck Marchis to shift from full-time academic research to a mixture of industry and scholarly work.
When that shutdown began, Marchis was a full-time researcher at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, waiting to hear back from NASA and the NSF on multiple grant proposals. Those decisions were delayed for months after the shutdown ended, as the agencies catching up on backlogged applications. Meanwhile, Marchis was running out of money to pay two assistant researchers, and both left his lab.
Tired of waiting for his grants to come through, he took a half-time position with a company that manufactures mirrors and optics technology of the sort used in large research telescopes. Today, Marchis spends half his time at SETI and half at the telescope start-up firm Unistellar. “I don’t want to put my family in that same situation ever again,” he says of the 2013 shutdown.
“When I talk to young people about my research, I often mention this,” he says. “‘Don’t forget, if one day they don’t want to pay you, they push a button and your dream is over.’ That’s what you need to be ready for as a scientist.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on January 10, 2019.