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7 Ways the Government Shutdown is Hurting Science

ByTim De ChantNOVA NextNOVA Next

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The government shutdown is now in its seventh day. While many critical science-related functions like the National Weather Service and food inspections are still running, there’s plenty that’s not. Here are seven ways that the continued government shutdown is harming science.

Influenza Tracking

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Got your flu shot yet? Even if you aren’t the type who normally does, you may want to this year. The shutdown means the Centers for Disease Control can’t keep an eye on the progress of this year’s flu outbreaks and which strains are most prominent, data used by physicians and health departments around the country.

Maryn McKenna, writing at Superbug :

And here is what that means: We are now at the start of flu season. If this season becomes a bad one — a rogue virus, an uneven epidemic, a concentration of cases in the elderly or the very young or in a particular city or state — we’ll have no way of knowing. And, for what it’s worth, no way of directing additional public-health or research help, because they’ve all been sent home. In tracking flu, one of the most unpredictable and mutable human-disease viruses around, we have been blinded. And if the shutdown continues more than a few weeks, then that blindness will also blanket development of next year’s flu vaccine — because within a few weeks, CDC researchers would start analyzing this year’s northern and southern hemisphere viruses to determine what ought to be included in next year’s vaccine mix.

Future Weather Satellites

Our polar-orbiting weather satellite—which is vital to forecasts beyond three days out—is living on borrowed time , and it’s replacement has had a rocky history. If the shutdown continues, the expected gap in coverage from when the current satellite will likely fail and its replacement is ready—already about 18 months—will probably widen.

Andrew Freedman, writing for Climate Central :

A short shutdown will allow the contractors that are building the new satellites, including new polar-orbiting and geostationary weather satellites, to keep working using funding left over from fiscal year 2013 appropriations. But, according to NOAA, if the furloughs last beyond 1 to 2 weeks, the satellite production schedule could slip.

The U.S. government shutdown has been adversely affecting many scientific endeavors.

Biomedical Research

Given that children with cancer are unable to enroll in new studies at the National Institutes of Health because of the shutdown, biomedical research has gotten quite a bit of attention during the shutdown. It’s heartbreaking, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Brandon Keim, reporting for Wired :

Unlike most other government medical researchers, this scientist has been allowed to visit the laboratory to feed rodents used in research by the scientist’s group. Many if not most of the rodents will soon be euthanized.

“It’s not a matter of feeding the animals and cleaning their cages. These animals used for research are used in intricate experiments, involving treatments and collection of data performed by hundreds of individual scientists with each project. An animal caretaker can’t continue that.”

Long-Term Ecosystem Monitoring

If ecosystems were prose, they would be a set of Russian novels—there are so many different species and relationships that it takes lots of scholarly study to understand them. But even some of the most fundamental research is being furloughed.

Redditor 99trumpets :

Example, I have 2 ongoing federal grants. One has already been delayed for months by sequestration, and due to that we already had to completely scrap the entire 2013 field season. (The animals are only study-able in August & September; the funding was delayed 6 mos but you can’t just go tell the animals “could you please postpone your breeding season till February? thanks”. And you can’t always just bump things to next year – maybe the boats aren’t available, your lead grad student or postdoc will have left already, etc.).

Energy Research

Last week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced that if we are to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2˚ C, we should keep our cumulative emissions below 1,000 trillion metric tons; we have already emitted more than half of that amount. Coincidentally, the Department of Energy also announced last week that the APRA-E research program on advanced energy sources would be closed during the shutdown.

Alex Guillen, writing for Politico :

Many DOE operations — like offices on science, nuclear energy, fossil fuels, renewable energy and energy efficiency — would continue with only enough employees to count on one hand. Sub-agencies that would shut down completely include ARPA-E, the Loan Programs Office, the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of International Affairs.

Collaborations and Peer Review

When government scientists are forced to stop working, it’s not just their projects that are affected. Many are active members of their scientific communities, collaborating with other researchers and assisting journals in the peer review process.

Gwen Pearson, writing at Charismatic Minifauna :

When federal employees are furloughed, that doesn’t just mean federal scientific work stops. It means federal scientists can’t take phone calls or answer emails . They are not available for scientific collaboration or consultation with non-federal peers. It is illegal for them to do public business when on furlough .

Photo credit: Architect of the Capitol