Photograph by George Steinmetz, National Geographic
Published October 21, 2013
A U.S. government shutdown that sent home federal workers for 16 days has ended, but its impact on science continues. The furloughs included as many as one million federal employees, many of whom carry out or provide support for scientific research activities.
With an estimated cost of $24 billion to the U.S. economy, the shutdown's effects on researchers are also expected to continue well beyond the short term.
Now that everyone's returned to work, here's a roundup of the immediate fallout for science research.
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
With workers furloughed, the NIH Clinical Center severely reduced enrollment of new patients in clinical trials. During the first week of October, the center enrolled 12 patients with life-threatening conditions. Under normal circumstances, approximately 200 new patients are enrolled per week.
The shutdown also halted roughly 11,000 NIH research grant application reviews. In all, "over 200 review meetings had to be canceled and thousands of reviewers had to change their travel plans," wrote Sally Rockey, NIH's deputy director for extramural research, on her Rock Talk blog. "This is a far from an ideal situation" that has delayed research funds, she says, and "it will be double-duty for many reviewers in the next [grant] cycle."
With the shutdown concluded, the Clinical Center is now fully operational and has resumed its normal patient admission process, the NIH reports.
National Science Foundation (NSF)
During the shutdown, the National Science Foundation reduced its efforts in Antarctica to a skeleton crew that maintained facilities. Research in this part of the world usually begins in October, but this year, the shutdown created a setback, and it is currently unclear which research, if any, will be pushed to next season.
U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS)
Nearly all of the U.S. Geological Survey's 9,000 employees were furloughed during the federal shutdown. Scientists working for the USGS missed an opportunity to field-test an acoustic barrier meant to protect the Great Lakes from invading Asian carp. Because of cooling water temperatures, the test is now delayed until spring. Earthquake-monitoring outages that took hours to resolve instead of minutes also meant limited availability of data from sensors in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest.
"We are just beginning to assess the full impact of the shutdown on our science, and it will be, at the very least, a few days and, in some cases, a few weeks before we will know the sum of the effects," wrote Suzette Kimball, acting director of the USGS, in an email.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention furloughed about two-thirds of its employees in response to the federal shutdown. Severely understaffed, the agency halted nationwide flu monitoring.
According to an emailed statement from Barbara Reynolds, director of the CDC's division of public affairs, the federal agency aims to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but the long-term effects of the shutdown may not be known for some time yet.
Two American astronauts aboard the International Space Station and flight directors at Mission Control in Houston were exempted from furlough, but nearly all other NASA employees went home during the federal shutdown.
Flight controllers monitored a precarious maneuver for the recently launched Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, or LADEE; Mars rover Curiosity kept moving; and the next Mars spacecraft, MAVEN, is still expected to launch on schedule in mid-November.
But most other NASA science activities—including critical preparations for the 2018 James Webb Space Telescope—came to a stop.
Other Scientists Affected
The shutdown affected more than just the research activities of federal agencies. It slowed the progress of scientists at state and local levels of government and at universities.
"The shutdown is over, but its effects on science will linger," wrote Aaron Huertas, a spokesperson for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an email. The nonprofit science advocacy organization heard stories of stalled research from many of its members during the shutdown.
For example, graduate students were unable to access data, files, and equipment at federal facilities; a plant pathologist who helps farmers identify crop diseases could not work without access to U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities; and a university scientist in Florida was unable to monitor mercury contamination in streams as Tropical Storm Karen approached, a time when collection data might show spikes.
Explore With Nat Geo
Anders Angerbjörn learns little foxes have big attitudes.
Special Ad Section
Shop book & DVD gifts for all ages. Plus, save on maps featuring award-winning cartography. Limited time only.