Friday, October 18, 2013

Nice going congress

"What the Shutdown Did to Science"

The government shutdown is over for now, and federal employees are going back to work. But the 16-day lapse in federal funding has already hurt many areas of science.


Rebecca Boyle

October 17th, 2013

Popular Mechanics

Now that Congress has finally gotten its act together, reopened the government, and temporarily averted economic disaster, the lasting effects of the 16-day federal shutdown are starting to emerge. For many scientific experiments, the damage has already been done.

While thousands of furloughed scientists are returning to work today, many will face gaps in their data that will reverberate through research communities for a while. The picture is still emerging, but here's what we know now about the shutdown's long-term effects on science.

Life Science Lockdown

Lab animals will die as a direct result of the shutdown. While essential workers stayed on duty to give them food and water, that might not be enough. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health will have to euthanize some animals because of overcrowding—a female mouse can have a litter of up to 10 pups every three weeks, so it's very likely more mice will greet returning lab workers than the workers have room to keep.

At the National Institutes of Health, scientists had just 4 hours to mothball their research or put it on ice—literally and figuratively. Stefano Bertuzzi, executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology, said the repercussions will last months, not only because of lost cell lines or animals, but because of logjammed grant proposals for future science. Weeks of review panels will have to be rescheduled, which means hopeful scientists might have to wait until spring to find out whether their projects will get funding. Bertuzzi described the shutdown, and diminished research funding in general, as “a disaster.”

“It leaves a sour taste in your mouth,"
he says. "This is not something that should happen. It really demoralizes the workforce. It’s yet another sign that we are not competitive. We really forgot how to be ourselves.”

Disease Tracking

As we noted earlier, the government shutdown endangered health experts' efforts to track and curtail an outbreak of salmonella on the West Coast. With the government back up and running (for now), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can once again take the lead on that kind of crucial public health project.

However, in humans, flu season is just getting started. But because of the shutdown, scientists at the CDC haven't been running the typical influenza surveillance that helps them to determine whether 2013 flu strains match the seasonal vaccine supply, and what changes they need to make for this year's vaccination campaigns. CDC furloughed about 9000 people, or about two-thirds of its staff, which includes the people normally monitoring flu activity and a wide range of other public health threats. The CDC's director, Thomas R. Frieden, said in an interview with Wired, "We have more blind spots, we may be slower to respond, and we may be less effective at prevention."

Weather and Climate

Understanding Antarctica helps scientists understand global patterns of climate change, and countless studies depend on annual visits. The window for Antarctic summer travel is open now, but it isn't long. And last week, because of the shutdown, the National Science Foundation suspended the season and called scientists home. Though managers will now try to restore what they can, "some activities cannot be restarted once seasonally dependent windows for research and operations have passed. The seasonal workforce is released, science activities are curtailed, and operations are reduced," the NSF said at the time.

Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia and professor of geography and atmospheric sciences, told PopMech via email: "It's not trivial to just simply flip the sign from closed to open. Significant logistics and cost will be involved in the recall." This means population studies on penguins, ice-sheet investigations, and many more Antarctic research projects might have one-year data holes. This hurts scientists' future abilities to distinguish long-term trends from annual variations.

On a broader scale, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and much of its National Weather Service were shut down. The NWS had a limited staff providing forecasts, but maintenance of radars, ocean buoys, and other observational tools stopped or was cut back during the shutdown. "As things get back to normal, hopefully, unmaintained systems will not lead to aggregate malfunctions or outages," Shepherd says.

Adrift in Space

As the shutdown started, space enthusiasts worried it would imperil the launch of the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution spacecraft (MAVEN), set to leave Earth in November or December. That spacecraft was spared, but many other explorers in space and on Earth faced shutdowns or communication lapses. Teams working on the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, for example, were in the midst of cryo-testing its deep-space instruments when the government shutdown sent them home.

Other space missions kept collecting data while Congress dithered, but it was data their human managers couldn't see since they weren't allowed to go to work. The Mars rover Curiosity, for instance, kept roving Mars and taking photos, but NASA higher-ups couldn't look at them and use them to plan where to drive next or which rocks to drill. The Juno probe, scheduled to arrive at Jupiter in 2016, buzzed Earth last week to get a gravity slingshot, but NASA officials were not in the office to communicate with it. The day the shutdown started, NASA turned 55. On Oct. 15 the Cassini mission to Saturn turned 16. But no one at the space agency was allowed to celebrate. Instead, space enthusiasts took to Twitter, led by blogger Bill Dunford, to share #ThingsNASAMightTweet.

Earth-based astronomy suffered and will continue to suffer. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory shuttered Oct. 4 after its rainy-day funds dried up. That means the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Long Baseline Array, and the Very Large Array will have a wide gap in their data. Like so much of scientific research, looking at the stars requires time so scientists can see changes appear. Radio astronomers such as Mark Reid of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics will try to get back up to speed, but some still could lose a full year of work. Reid's project involves measuring gas in the Milky Way, and it relies on combining sets of measurements taken at certain times, according to ScienceInsider.

While everyone is glad to be back at work, scientists will no doubt have holes they may not be able to plug. Planetary scientist Sarah Hörst, who tweets under the alias Planet Dr., suggests a creative way to explain it: "For years into the future, scientists will label gaps in data on their plots Boehner gap or maybe Tea Party gap," she writes.

Morale and the Future of Science

Scientists contacted for this article say publicly and privately that the worst lasting effect that the shutdown has on science might be the blow to morale and the psychological toll it will take. Postdoctoral researchers, who have to publish to get jobs in academia later, will face delayed responses to data requests, grant applications, or literature reviews. Grad students working on dissertations and theses might have to change their research topics or push back their timelines. Scientists have missed major annual conferences during the shutdown, which may not sound like a big deal. But these meetings often are the only chances researchers have all year to meet colleagues and share their latest work. Shepherd tells PM that a major meteorology conference took place this week in Charleston, S.C., but most National Weather Service employees couldn't go.

"This affected the quality of that meeting and NWS employee morale," he says. "Further, many next-generation science students see shutdown shenanigans, and it does not [present] a high view of federal service or the desire to work in that environment. I think this is one of the most lasting impacts of the shutdown."

Katherine King, a postdoctoral researcher at the Environmental Protection Agency and visiting professor at Duke University, studies the intersection of health and urban planning. "We also know that research we do early in our careers influences the trajectories our careers take, so a disruption in research matters personally, as well as for public health," she says in an email. "I have been working at home during the shutdown, and look forward to being able to take the next steps in several projects once I can communicate with colleagues, access journals and data, and use equipment again."

NASA shutdown October 1st, 2013

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