Calvin And Hobbes Would Call It: Scientific Progress Goes ‘Boink’

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Scientists and researchers, both federally employed and those who rely on funding from federal sources like the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are struggling to determine how exactly the shutdown affects them.

This comes on the heels of a year of sequester-related cuts that set back federal research institutes such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by reducing travel to conferences and implementing furlough days. While not devastating up front, these kinds of work restrictions can separate researchers from the rest of the scientific community, including academia. Science is a collaborative, peer-reviewed effort and interference from the federal level can cause major slowdowns to important research.

Federal scientists are not allowed to conduct any sort of work-related business during a furlough or shutdown. This not only means staying home from work but also being unavailable for scientific collaboration or consultation with extramural researchers or other non-federal peers.

For federal outlets that are both research and educational facilities, such as the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California this can mean leaving graduate students unattended, and quite possibly causing a delay in their graduation.

Scientists could also missing abstract submission deadlines, such as for the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting, a major conference for which abstracts are due on October 4th. Scientists are just like the rest of us, often getting submissions in at the last minute, and now many will probably be forced to miss this deadline, and likely the conference as well. That is, if their sequester-reduced budget included funding for them to go in the first place.

Visiting researchers or lecturers, a regular occurrence in the scientific community, are also being forced to cancel trips to federal outlets such as NOAA.

This type of uncertainty can be especially nerve-wracking for experiments involving living organisms or time-sensitive data collection where projects can’t easily be put on hold until the government decides to restart the cogs of our vast bureaucratic machine.

The NSF has furloughed 95 percent of its employees. This means that grant panels which review proposals will not convene, likely delaying all new grants for months.

Many scientists work with chemicals that they will be unable to order or pick-up. This could leave chemicals stranded in warehouses, some of them dangerously, to be sorted through once the shutdown is over.

While shutting down may happen quite abruptly, starting processes back up can take significant amounts of time. One scientist estimated that one week of furlough could take two weeks to recover from from once all the restart protocols are completed.

For example, any instrument that emits radiation, such as an electron microscope, must be reinspected after a shutdown. Repairs or service contracts will be delayed or possibly terminated, and have to be renegotiated in some cases.

These multifarious concerns have spawned a Reddit discussion about how the government shutdown will affect scientists.

Some of the comments include:

“I have no way to contact my Program Officer about my upcoming grant submissions, or previous grants that are under review. I can’t submit grants — and if the shutdown goes on long enough, I’m guessing that the NIH will start falling behind on Study Sections and the rest of the review process. As the money on hand dries up, this will grow into a huge problem for most labs.”

“Unfortunately, the likelihood of forthcoming grant issues is extremely high — for the NIH anyway. The review panels are scheduled a year or more in advance and are populated primarily by senior faculty/researchers. Getting 20+ senior folks together for a week is a challenge a year in advance, so I can’t imagine they’ll be able to replicate the current funding schedule that many rely upon.”

“I’ve been using NASA’s computers to run radiation simulations on spacecraft, to help improve the software NASA uses to design shielding for spacecraft (real and theoretical) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and deep space. Because of the shutdown, I (and my boss) have been deemed non-essential. My remote access has been revoked, and his laptop has been confiscated while he was sent home until time TBD. Yesterday was a 24-hour marathon of let’s see how much work we can get done and download for data analysis at home.”

Patents are another concern. While the U.S. Patent And Trademark Office is staying open for up to four weeks by using reserve fee collections, not all necessary legal and patent review facilities are functioning. A delay in a patent can be detrimental to an inventor as competing patent claims are based on filing dates. So an overseas competitor could file a patent that would otherwise have been granted to an American if it weren’t for the shutdown. Many patents are very time-sensitive.

Then there’s the issue of morale, especially for federally employed scientists like those at the NPS who were already under one-day-a-week furlough all summer. To go from a furlough to a shutdown in which you have less than 24-hours to prepare yourself, your students, and your staff for an undetermined amount of leave time is not an uplifting experience. Plans that were made for conferences or other work-related events, which can often take weeks or months to coordinate, must also be cancelled or rescheduled.

And things may get worse before they get better. Science Careers quotes the head of grants office as writing in an email:

“What’s more frightening [than the threat of a government shutdown] is the pending debt ceiling negotiations. The last time there was an 11th hour deal on that, it resulted in the sequester. And if there isn’t an 11th hour deal, and the U.S. is allowed to default, then we’re in uncharted territory — grantee organizations and government contractors could be facing partial and/or delayed payments for costs that have already been incurred. And that’s just limiting it to a parochial view of the immediate impact on government grants, broader economic implications aside.”