On January 25, 2019, President Donald Trump signed a bill that reopened the government for three weeks, putting an end to the 35-day partial shutdown, the longest and most expensive in U.S. history. This means that 800,000 federal employees are now back at work and furloughed employees can once again start receiving paychecks. Although many workers are rejoicing and Congress can breathe a short sigh of relief, the effects of the government shutdown are far from over.
The science community was especially hard hit during the government shutdown. Agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were left unfunded and workers were unable to go to work unless their work was deemed “essential.” This had a large impact on researchers and scientists who were unable to perform experiments and collect critical data.
Another agency that was left unfunded was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose data collection activities had to be suspended. During the government shutdown, NOAA's website was not only inaccessible, but potential weather warnings could not be published, leaving many without critical weather information. While NOAA was still able to publish its 2018 Global Mean Surface Temperature report on time, analyses about regional weather variations and ocean monitoring, which are used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are now running behind.
The shutdown also had an impact on the NOAA-managed National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) (now part of the National Centers for Environmental Information) and the National Hurricane Center. The NCDC is a public data repository which provides information on temperature trends, weather model forecast data, and climate datasets. The Center also tracks hurricanes and tornados, as well as potential floods. The National Hurricane Center focuses on tracking and forecasting hurricanes—an increasingly critical mission as climate change makes extreme weather both more frequent and more devastating. The National Hurricane Center's work over the winter was affected by the shutdown (during the hurricane off-season, it seeks to improve hurricane forecasts and implement new tracking techniques).
NASA relies heavily on NOAA weather information to ensure that it is safe to launch rockets and satellites. During the shutdown, only those working on the International Space Station were deemed essential, and the remaining 95 percent of NASA employees were not working. For the aerospace sites that remained open, the absence of NOAA data prevented forecasts of weather conditions, which is imperative in order to keep launches safe and on schedule. Canceled launches can have snowballing repercussions on the launch schedule, and significantly delay scientific research.
One of the many NASA programs deemed nonessential was the IceBridge campaign, a decade-long aerial campaign launched in 2009 to monitor ice loss due to climate change in the Arctic Circle. As a result, IceBridge is now trying to cope with an eight-week gap in its data. While there have been almost 10 years of observations already collected, this gap in the research threatens the integrity of the data and may harm the accuracy of climate change predictions.
Scientists and professors have commented on the gaps that the government shutdown has left in their research, stating that continuity is one of the essential factors needed to have reliable and accurate scientific observations. When conducting research on animal patterns and the quality of air and water, continuous data collection is critical and many projects have been crippled, putting professors and scientists months, and possibly years, behind. For example, during the shutdown, 500 entomologists were furloughed, halting research on invasive pests, which is critical to understand rapidly changing ecosystems, and on mosquitoes and ticks, which transmit diseases not only to people, but also to livestock and pets. Other projects, such as studies on termites, were also stopped, hindering data collection that could reveal more about their impact on the built environment and as crop pests.
At the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), researchers were unable to access and monitor greenhouses, resulting in plants dying and experiments coming to a halt. Not only do scientists have to wait until the following planting season to re-conduct experiments, but thousands of dollars' worth of soil, fertilizer, and labor have now been wasted due to the lapse.
In addition to halting ongoing research, the shutdown prevented grant and research money from being processed. The National Science Foundation had to cancel panels to review research proposals due to lack of government funding, which has caused delays in the allocation of billions of dollars towards various research projects across the country. These delays also disrupted research taking place at universities, causing uncertainty for graduate students and professors who rely on these funds to conduct classes and experiments.
While these data shortages and research delays are a pressing issue in the scientific community, little can be done at the federal level to try make up for missing research and lost time. Scientists and researchers could ask for additional funding from the federal government, but this would not make up for the lost time and disrupted experiments.
So while federal employees can finally go back to work, it is still not business as usual. Departments and agencies are now expected to catch up on incomplete work from the shutdown, and the scientific community is left to cope with data gaps. While some may think that the worst is over, others are cautiously preparing for the next government shutdown, which may arrive sooner rather than later. Congress and the President have until February 15 to agree on a year-long budget that will replace the stopgap bill. In an uncertain political climate, it might be best for the science community to keep all options open.
Author: Nicolette Santos