Scientists Deal with Shutdown Fallout, Fear for Future of Research


COLLEGE PARK, Md.—Scientists are scrambling to recover after the government shutdown forced their research to go dark and cut off federal funding for weeks. And the already beleaguered scientific community fears that another shutdown in January could be devastating.

“There’s certainly a lot of frustration and anger,” said Joanne Carney, director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Office of Government Relations. “Scientists are feeling like they were collateral damage.”

Any science-related activity funded by the government essentially stopped during the shutdown. Only research deemed essential—things like clinical trials involving the health of humans or animals—and already funded research were allowed to continue.

But, Carney said, even fully funded research was thwarted because federal data that many scientists rely on was unavailable during the shutdown.

During the 16-day shutdown, “no proposals were received or distributed for peer review, no review panels were convened, no new awards were made, and no existing awards received payments,” acting director of the National Science Foundation Cora Marrett wrote in a memo.

It will take months for activity at the National Science Foundation to return to normal, Merritt wrote.

“The impacts were devastating,” said Lee Cooper, a research professor the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who focuses on the effects of climate change in the Arctic.

While the shutdown hampered a wide array of research opportunities, perhaps none were endangered as much as research in the Antarctic.

Research opportunities in the Antarctic are limited and the field season—the period of time allotted for scientists to conduct research in the region—is limited as well. While some researchers were already on their way to the icy continent, the shutdown occurred just as they began to make landfall.

“Scientists were on a boat that had just arrived and they weren’t sure if they would be able to even unload their equipment,” Carney said.

While some researchers were allowed to begin their projects once the shutdown ended, Carney said, many were told their trip would need to wait until next year.

The U.S. Antarctic Program—currently beginning its field season—was forced to enter a caretaker state thanks to the lapse in funding. The NSF manages three year-round stations in Antarctica, none of which are designed to go unmanned, said Peter West, Outreach & Education Program Manager at the National Science Foundation.

“They aren’t designed to deal with intense cold and the elements,” West said. “A small number of people were there to ensure that the operations of the stations were maintained.”

But other than that select group of people, Antarctica was essentially closed to researchers. And it would have continued to be closed, had the shutdown continued.

Instead, West explained, the National Science Foundation focused on making sure that projects collecting long-term data sets had access to the field. After the shutdown ended, focus shifted to putting out the strongest season of research possible despite the weeks of going dark.

Despite the shutdown’s end and a return to normalcy among the scientific community, fears still linger of another funding lapse come January.

Congressional leaders agreed to a deal on October 16 to end the government shutdown, but it’s only a temporary fix. The deal funds the government through January 15 and moves the deadline to raise the debt ceiling until February 7.

Cooper, a biogeochemist at the University of Maryland, works with other biologists in the Bering Sea in the Arctic. His work—as well as the work of his colleagues—is funded by a number of agencies, including the National Science Foundation.

Though his work in the Arctic was not directly impacted by the shutdown—funding for Arctic research had already been allotted, unlike the funds for Antarctic research, Cooper said—future funding is still at risk.

Should the government face another shutdown, Cooper’s research could be among funded projects that would be forced to go dark again.

“It will be fine for a little while,” Cooper said. “But if this grinding percentage cut in funding continues, it’s not a very pretty picture in the end.”

Not only will the effects of the shutdown be felt long after its end, the systemic funding cuts and shutdowns send a negative image of the U.S.’ commitment to scientific research, Carney said.

“You can’t just turn science on and off like a switch,” Carney said.

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