Scientists and their projects suffer during U.S. government shutdown

World Today

Scientists and their projects suffer during U.S. government shutdown

The partial shutdown is having a big impact on scientists. Some labs have been forced to close — projects have been interrupted and data uncollected. Now, some furloughed researchers are beginning to consider taking their expertise elsewhere. CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy has more.

JoAnn Holloway is a research scientist studying the impact of mining on watersheds for a major U.S. government agency.

“It’s a really beautiful way to conduct science because it’s science that gives directly back to the public,” Holloway says. But she’s unable to do that work because she was furloughed five weeks ago. “It’s a disappointment to know how little security I have,” she laments.

Curtis Walker is still on the job, but the post-doctoral fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, who’s studying the use of artificial intelligence to better predict road conditions, says his access to weather information on federal web sites has been severely restricted.

“And so unfortunately that’s impeding getting access to data to further my research and data analysis,” he says. They’re among the many thousands of people working in science across the U.S. who’ve been affected by the government shutdown and the shuttering of numerous federal agencies.

“The vast majority of our funding is from the United States government,” says Antonio Busalacchi. He is president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, and oversees NCAR. He says the inability to collaborate with furloughed colleagues is also hampering the development of new weather models.

“Ultimately that means we’re not protecting life and property to the fullest extent that science will allow us to,” he says. Shutdown-created research gaps have been created across the scientific spectrum, says science advocate Dan Powers.

“What we’re not learning, in some ways we won’t know how bad it was until weeks, months, years down the road,” Powers says. “We’re all in the same boat together so to speak,” adds NCAR’s Walker.

And then there’s the human side, the human toll of this shutdown. Federal workers are braced to miss their second paycheck. Many of them have filed for unemployment benefits, but they only go so far.

“It gives me just enough over the course of a month to cover my house and my normal bills,” says Holloway, dreads the thought of the shutdown continuing. “If this goes into February, I’m in trouble.”

Busalacchi, whose agency is currently funded until late February, worries the budget impasse could drive talented people out of science altogether.

“The message being sent to the scientific community is that the work you’re doing is not really of value at the highest levels of the nation,” he says.

Holloway says re-starting scientific research will be a challenge if and when the shutdown ends. “It’s going to take a while to ramp back up after this. That’s one of the reasons why these shutdowns are so expensive.” Costly, she and other scientists say, in so many different ways.