Yet again, the partial government shutdown is threatening the continuity of federally funded science and research in the US. On Monday, the shutdown became the third longest ever, on its seventeenth day, with no end in sight.
President Donald Trump said last week that he was prepared for the shutdown to last “months or even years” if Congress continues to refuse to allocate over 5 billion dollars for a wall on the nation’s southern border with Mexico.
The president has even said he will consider declaring a national emergency to allocate money for the wall.
But in the meantime, roughly a quarter of the federal government is shut down, and around 400,000 federal employees are not receiving paychecks. Many functions of the federal government have been halted as a result, including the funding for science grants, as well as research on areas like climate, space exploration, water, and wildfires.
“The partial federal government shutdown is disrupting and delaying research projects and leading to increased uncertainty about the prospects for new research,” American Association for the Advancement of Science chief Rush Holt told the San Francisco Chronicle in an email.
Of a total of 17,000 NASA workers, about 15,000 have been furloughed. Around half of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) 11,000 workers have been called off, as well as most of the US Geological Survey’s (USGS) 8,000 employees. Work that’s been deemed essential, such as NASA’s space missions, USGS earthquake and tsunami alerts, and NOAA’s weather forecasts, are continuing.
Yet, halting the “nonessential” work may have far-reaching consequences, according to experts.
For one, NASA is unable to carry out its weekly updates to US Drought Monitor’s weekly drought maps, which local and state governments need to plan their use of water supplies.
“Most federal water research in the U.S. is now at a standstill, which is inconvenient at best, and dangerous at worst,” Jay Famiglietti, a former NASA water scientist, said to the Chronicle.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of its registrants won’t be able to attend its annual conference in Seattle, as a result of the shutdown. It’s having a similar impact on the world’s largest annual weather conference, hosted by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), following an email to NOAA employees saying “all official NOAA travel to the AMS is canceled.”
A National Weather Service employee, who asked to remain anonymous, told Earther:
“Critical engagements happen there that cannot be replaced. Seeds of collaboration are fertilized and planted. Partnerships are created and nurtured. We lose the year’s worth of those connections, but then we’re playing catch-up in the next year and maybe the one after that. We’re left out of the loop, on the outside looking in.”
Many other smaller scientific conferences have been cancelled entirely.
As the shutdown continues, the interruptions increasingly extend beyond government research, affecting other scientists that rely on federal funding. The National Science Foundation, which funds billions of dollars in scientific research annually, has closed its doors, halting grant payments and reviews of new grant proposals.
The shutdown goes beyond temporarily postponing research. Ongoing research will now include gaps in data that could have a long-term impact. Former secretary of the interior Sally Jewell told The New York Times:
“It’s not just the gap. It’s the ability to correlate that with a broader picture of what’s happening environmentally and ecologically. It really does mess things up.”
Many scientists have said the effects of the shutdown will be felt for years to come. And much of the interrupted research pertains to environmental and climate impacts that are having increasingly destructive and tangible consequences, including wildlife counts, prescribed burns to prevent wildfires, and annual climate analysis at NOAA and NASA.
In one example, US Forest Service ecologist Malcolm North is now at risk of missing a deadline for a grant request to continue research on how to prevent California wildfires using prescribed burns.
Twelve of California’s 15 largest wildfires have occurred since the year 2000. Scientists expect the problem to get worse as the climate continues to warm. Last November, the Camp Fire became the single most deadly and destructive wildfire in the state’s history.
Climate-related events are causing more and more damage, and research to address the problem – as well as climate change itself – is more important than ever.
Furthermore, the status of the US as a world leader in science and innovation is increasingly at risk.
Of course, research is just one way in which the shutdown is disastrous. With employees, furloughed, national parks have suffered immensely, with effects that could linger well beyond the end of the shutdown.
And contrary to Trump’s assertions that building the wall is a top security priority, national security has likely suffered as a result of paychecks being cut off for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees. The TSA is responsible for airport security, where attempted illegal entry by known or suspected terrorists has occurred much more frequently than over the southern border.
Trump needs to seriously consider whether the border wall should take precedence over science and research – not to mention far more pressing aspects of national security. Given how much Trump has invested politically in the promise of the border wall, and the way he’s digging in his heels so far, this doesn’t seem likely to happen.