On Monday, both houses of Congress voted to pass a short-term spending bill to end a government shutdown that had already lasted three days. While this means the shutdown is now over, the short-term spending bill only lasts until February 8th, when the threat of a shutdown will loom once again. Both parties should make it a priority to work out long-term funding for the 2018 fiscal year.
The shutdown began when the senate failed to reach an agreement on a temporary spending bill, unable to compromise on several immigration related issues, particularly the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. Democrats hoped to include protections for the undocumented immigrants, who arrived in the US as children, in the budget. Trump, who has expressed support for the program, said protections should be included in a larger bill that also includes tightened border security. On Friday, the Senate failed to agree on a spending bill amidst these disagreements. It was not a long-term compromise that ended the shutdown Monday, but rather a commitment to hold a vote on DACA, from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. None of these issues have been resolved, and the short-term spending bill provides for just three weeks.
Along with some of the more widely discussed consequences of the shutdown, such as hundreds of thousands of “non-essential” federal employees unable to work, the government’s indecision on the budget has also affected scientific research. While this shutdown has ended, the uncertainty, which has lasted since September when congress failed to agree on a long-term budget for the 2018 fiscal year, will continue. This has left researchers uncertain of how to proceed. With the budget unsettled, many agencies have had their funding frozen at 2017 levels, while it remains unclear whether they might face the cuts suggested by the Trump administration. This indecision has now lasted for months. The potential for a repeat shutdown in February adds a further layer of uncertainty.
The last government shutdown, in 2013, lasted 16 days, ultimately cutting short the US Antarctic Program’s field season that year, delaying some grant cycles for as long as 6 months, and disrupting many experiments that required precise planning.
When the shutdown went into effect last week, thousands of researchers working for federal agencies were told not to come to work, and could not access government email accounts or phones. Various research projects were interrupted, and agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) were unable to process grants, cutting off funding for some academic researchers.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration saw 54 percent of its 11,400 employees put on furlough during the shutdown, according to the US Department of Commerce.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) faced the prospect of being shut down in the midst of relief efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and in California after massive wildfires last year. The agency said it was able to continue operation the week of the 22nd, but would have had to reassess if the shutdown had continued past January 26th.
USDA researchers, set to travel to Mexico as part of a project to develop drought-resistant sorghum plants, were told to stay home. If the shutdown had persisted much longer, that team could have missed a pollination window, delaying the project for a full year. This example shows how government shutdowns can threaten meticulously planned research.
Some science agencies are directly responsible for public health and safety. Fifty percent of the staff of the Department of Health and Human Services were put on furlough, as the nation combats a flu epidemic. The furlough applied to much of the staff at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which tracks and monitors the epidemic.
Despite the brevity of the shutdown, it is symptomatic of the larger issue of budget indecision in the federal government, and how it affects science and research in the US. According to Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the shutdown is “just deeply disappointing because Congress has had months to fund the government.” This is an ongoing problem that started months before the shutdown, and threatens to continue for at least weeks afterwards.
Since Trump proposed big budget cuts for agencies such as the NIH early last year, these research institutions have been waiting to find out if their 2018 budgets would enjoy increases as some lawmakers have suggested, or whether Trump’s proposed cuts would go through. Now, it is almost a month into 2018, and researchers are still unable to plan for the year ahead. This uncertainty alone is enough to set back science and research in the US.
Not to mention that until the long-term issues are resolved, the threat of another shutdown will linger. And there is no assurance it would be resolved as quickly. Democrats have already warned that another shutdown could occur when short-term funding bill ends on February 8th, if McConnell doesn’t fulfil his end of the bargain. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Monday that she would withhold support for a long-term budget until an immigration deal can be reached.
Both Democrats and Republicans need to be mindful of what’s at stake with the threat of a government shutdown. Science is just one of a long list, but is particularly vulnerable due to the nature of research. Not all experiments can be put down and simply picked back up again days or weeks later. It is long past time to resolve the budget issue for 2018.