Science, You, and the U.S. Government Shutdown

Government shutdown. It sounds scary enough, but whether or not this had a direct impact on your life during the last sixteen days of shutdown and its immediate aftermath depended on your connection to the federal government.  With the government back up and running (or not, some may argue), I’d like to take a moment to highlight the effects the shutdown had on the center of BSR’s universe: science—Berkeley graduate student science, to be specific.


For those who have been too absorbed with things more awesome (like science) to pay attention to the antics of those in Washington, here is the synopsis:  The Republican controlled House, in an effort to sabotage—or at least delay—Obama Care, decided to tie the fiscal federal budget agreement to the implementation (or lack thereof, rather) to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care, which, by the way, had already been voted on fair and square). The budget decision was not actually linked to the Affordable Care Act, but was being wielded as a post-bargaining measure. Elephants said they wouldn’t agree to a budget unless it delayed or repealed Obama Care; Donkeys said they wouldn’t sign anything that stripped that which had already been agreed upon. In a nutshell:  no federal budget decision = no funding = government funded programs came grinding to a halt.

What did this mean for scientists?

We can loosely categorize government funded research—and the severity of shutdown impact—into three groups: intramural, extramural, and contractors. Intramural researchers conduct research at the government’s own facilities, and are paid directly by the federal government. Intramural organizations include big players like the NIH (National Institute of Health), the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and NASA. These intramural entities were basically closed for business. Don’t worry, the mice at the NIH were still fed—their caretakers were exempt from furlough. Some animals had to be sacrificed unnecessarily, however, and the breeding of important NIH-maintained transgenic lines was halted.  Petri dishes remained unchecked.  NIH was still delivering to cancer patients, but new patients could not enroll.  Hubbell was still delivering data from outer space, but there was no one on the ground to analyze it.

National Labs are considered government contractors. They remained open, but with limitations that varied with each lab.

University researchers (that’s us!) fall into the extramural category. Although universities are by-and-large funded by grants from intramural agencies such as the NIH and NSF (National Science Foundation), they are still their own entities and, grants already in-hand, could forge on—well, some, anyway.

Tales from the Berkeley Graduate Student files

Despite being (somewhat) autonomous from the government, university research still relies on a functioning government—there is little science that doesn’t. Even privately-funded industry depends on federal infrastructure: Pharma cannot put new drugs on the market without the DEA approval, biotech utilizes the sequence information organized by NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information).

A major hurdle for research during the shutdown was access to field sites. Much of the land utilized for field research and data collection are owned and operated by government entities such as the National Park Service (NPS). Field station closures and the inability for researchers to access their field sites forced a sudden halt to seasonal data collection. For some, this came at a critical time during an often already short field season supported by funds already stretched thin. A field season requires months of careful planning and fund sourcing, and a sixteen day pause meant loss of important data for many.

Berkeley graduate student Beth Wommack studies the effects of climate, habitat, and human induced changes on North American bird species, and volunteers at a banding station and migration count site run by the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. The GGRO conducts their work on NPS land, and was forced to close their operations during peak migration; “we missed a bunch of data there.”

And even if a researcher’s field site remained accessible, obtaining a collecting permit from the government was not. Berkeley paleontology student Ashley Poust was unable to submit his proposal for collecting permits on BLM land as planned. Given the average processing times of these permits, Poust will “certainly not be able to hear back in time to start work with my original schedule.”

A sixteen day delay means major setbacks for those who depend on seasonal cycles. Graduate student Allison Stegner embarked for a month of fieldwork—on federal land—starting the same day as the government shutdown. Unable to get her paleo excavation signed by the BLM office, she now has to find a way to reschedule that part of her work. If she waits until spring, she will be faced with wildlife breeding issues. And if she waits until next fall, her fellowship will have run out. Either way, she will be faced with re-permitting.

“In any case, I think things will work out ultimately, and it’s not clear at this point how much of a delay it will put on my graduation date, but it was definitely an unnecessary obstacle.”

The shutdown meant an uncomfortable delay in wrapping up an on-time dissertation for one Berkeley graduate researcher.  Although she finished her field research just before the shutdown, she was unable to obtain critical information for her dissertation (such as specimen numbers and photographs) from the National Monument employees that she works with. “One of my committee members is an employee of the monument and so I couldn’t send him drafts of my chapters. I feel lucky that I just happened to plan my last research trip there the week before the shutdown and not during it!”

ScreenshotsLab work was also affected. For example, a Berkeley researcher working in a neuroscience lab could not obtain a strain of NIH-maintained transgenic mice necessary for his experiments.  Licensing for regulated experiments was also unavailable. Furthermore, many experiments depend the wealth of scientific information organized by government entities, and many of these websites were unavailable or available on a limited basis during the shutdown.

Many educational and outreach tools were also unavailable. “In teaching my students about food deserts in the US, I was unable to direct them to the website where they could find a map of this,” says one Berkeley graduate student instructor.

Although those who had already received their funding were good to go (NSF graduate research fellows were assured their stipends could continue), applications for new funding were stalled, websites were down, and a flood of contusion over grant application deadlines ensued.

This was not necessarily perceived as a negative consequence, however.  Says Josh Schraiber, graduate student in theoretical evolutionary genomics, “I think the thing that a lot of people will say is that (ironically) it’s been beneficial because it gave us some more time to work on our proposals that had deadlines during the shutdown. I had a postdoc fellowship proposal due on the 8th, and I’m super glad I got an inadvertent deadline extension.”

Do you have a story about how the government shutdown affected your science? Please post it to our comments!



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