Here’s How The US Government Shutdown Is Damaging Science

National Radio Astronomy Observatory closed due to Government Shutdown, October 2013 under Obama. Emily Barney/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

The longest partial government shutdown in US history continues to trundle on. Since the political stalemate kicked off on December 22, very little appears to have been achieved, aside from some 800,000 federal workers going without paychecks, poop piling up in the country’s national parks, and a number of agencies closing their doors.

As a result of all this, science has also experienced some real trouble. Work at a number of government agencies involved in the sciences – including the National Science Foundation, the US Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – has more or less ground to a halt due to the ongoing shutdown. It isn’t just federally funded research that’s been brought to a standstill, a number of important services are threatened too. 

Here's a roundup of all the science that's been disturbed, halted, or damaged as a result of the ongoing shutdown.

The Environment

As you might have seen, the US National Park Service has been struggling with the shutdown, with multiple reports of vandalism and visitors taking advantage of the lack of staff. However, dirty bathrooms with no toilet paper are just the tip of the iceberg.

Around 6,000 NOAA staff have been furloughed and sent home, although the agency announced it would maintain any work “necessary to protect lives and property.” That said, this means all of their work must continue with just a skeleton crew. For example, the team behind the monitoring system that predicts and detects harmful algal blooms will be reduced to just one person. Other “non-essential” research into coral reefs and Arctic sea ice is believed to be suspended, while marine mammal rescue efforts will also suffer, just as they have during previous shutdowns.

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Over 13,000 EPA employees have been furloughed during the shutdown. Once again, the limited staff is only working on necessary projects or emergencies where public health could potentially be at risk. 

Fortunately, the National Weather Service, an arm of the NOAA, has stated it will not cease its critical forecasts and life-saving warnings. However, once again, its staffing will still be reduced.

“Let's also hope no weather radars or weather instruments break during the shutdown," Dr J Marshall Shepherd – former president of the American Meteorological Society – points out in Forbes. “How do they get fixed?”

Public Health

Food safety has become an unexpected casualty of the cuts. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has had to slow down its efforts to routinely inspect food facilities due to 40 percent of its staff being furloughed, reports The Guardian. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has also halted its health exposure assessments.

Of course, this is no reason to eat nothing but tinned peaches until the shutdown resolves, but it’s certainly not a preferable situation – especially if something goes wrong, such as a major food-borne illness outbreak.

"Having FDA off the food beat is always very dangerous," Professor Art Caplan, head of bioethics at NYU Langone Health in New York, told CNN.

Scientists collaborating with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) say the shutdown has stopped their important risk assessment of Asian longhorned ticks and calves in the US. The risk is not yet fully known, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said the disease-carrying ticks are a threat to both humans and livestock.

"We cannot begin this process to determine the risk this poses to cattle and how we might manage this risk. Delays will handicap our understanding of the disease dynamic and control strategies for the coming year,” Kevin Lahmers, a veterinary pathologist, said in a statement.

Postponed Projects And Lost Data

Countless projects have been put onto the backburner during the shutdown. For some, this is a major inconvenience, but others are claiming the shutdown could cause irrevocable damage to their work. 

As just one example of postponed announcements, the World Magnetic Model (WMM) – a “map” of the Earth’s magnetic field – was supposed to be released on January 15, but it's been postponed until at least January 30 due to the ongoing government shutdown. This means that the latest WMM, as well as many other vital datasets, are being withheld from researchers, the public, and businesses that rely on them. 

Countless pieces of research could also potentially be ruined, especially if time is of the essence. For example, Nature News reports that the world’s longest-running study of predators and prey, which tracks wolves and moose on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, could now be damaged. The project has been added to every winter since 1958, but the researchers fear they are running out of time to collect this year’s data.

“We could weather a few days’ delay without losing too much, but every day after that costs a lot. At some point, the scientific continuity is lost,” Rolf Peterson, a wildlife ecologist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, told Nature News.

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Space

Satellites aren't quite falling from the sky, but the shutdown has even spelled bad news for space exploration and astronomy.

Many US telescope facilities are quickly running out of reserve funds and might soon cease their operations. According to Space.com, these facilities include the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Green Bank Telescope, and the Very Large Array. Furthermore, an eye-watering 95 percent of NASA scientists are out of work for now and unable to carry out their timely research.

Last week saw the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle, however, a number of prominent speakers and guests were not able to attend due to the shutdown. That meant that their data was not publically announced and numerous projects remain unveiled.

“In the same week that the Chinese government lands a rover on the far side of the Moon and the US sends a probe to the furthest object ever visited by humanity scores of scientists at all career levels are being prevented from attending our meeting,” said Kevin Marvel, the astronomy organization’s executive officer, according to the Associated Press.

On top of all this, it’s feared that the mess will inspire some of NASA’s brightest brains to jump ship towards the ever-growing private sector.

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