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Science groups react to U.S. government shutdown as researchers scramble

Science groups are reacting with dismay to a partial shutdown of the U.S. government that began today after the U.S. Senate failed last night to advance funding legislation. Many scientists, meanwhile, are scrambling to determine whether they will be able to keep working.

The shutdown is “just deeply disappointing because Congress has had months to fund the government,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement. “Without a resolution the federal scientific enterprise will come to a screeching halt, potentially adding millions of dollars in costs and months of delay to taxpayer-funded projects.”

The funding lapse “deals another serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise,” said Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) in Washington, D.C., in a statement. He suggested the shutdown will add to long-term funding strains that have reduced federal spending on research from about 1.25% of the nation’s gross domestic product to 0.82%, “which is a near 40-year low.”

There is confusion among scientists about who, exactly, is affected by the shutdown. Some federal agencies have been slow to issue memos clarifying who should report to work on Monday if the shutdown is still in effect. (Workers often come in for a half-day or so to complete “orderly shutdown activities” and receive furlough notices.) At the Environmental Protection Agency, officials have suggested that all employees should expect to work every day next week, in apparent conflict with the agency’s own shutdown plan. Some federal researchers planning to travel to conferences or study sites over the weekend have been uncertain about whether they should board planes or trains.

The shutdown’s impacts could be especially complicated at federal facilities that host researchers who are not federal employees. The federally operated Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Maryland, for example, “will be closed to the public and all employees except for a few staff needed for security, animal care and emergency responses,” Anson Hines, SERC’s director, wrote in an email. The third of the center’s staff who are federal employees “will not be allowed to do any work offsite, and all who are on travel will be required to return home as quickly as possible.” But the other two-thirds are funded through SERC’s private trust, “so they’re expected to work as much as possible offsite. However, I’m sure you can imagine, without access to the SERC laboratory, the work they can do will be limited.”

Winter, he noted, “is when we do much of our sample analyses, data workup, some field work, and team collaboration on projects. So a shutdown will be very disruptive, inefficient, and costly.”

At the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., some scientists will be working as usual because they have been deemed essential personnel vital to maintaining health and safety. In a memo, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue noted that staff who conduct epidemiological investigations of food-borne disease outbreaks will stay on the job, as will those who respond to pest outbreaks and care for laboratory animals and “critical research infrastructure.” The department’s “Biotechnology Regulatory Services will monitor the compliance call line for incidents related to genetically engineered organisms,” the memo states, and “if an incident needs follow up, the correct regulatory and investigative personnel will be called in to work.”

It is not clear how long the shutdown will last. Lawmakers in Congress are trying negotiate an end to the impasse. On Friday, Mick Mulvaney, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, predicted that "there's a really good chance [the impasse] gets fixed" over the weekend, and the government will reopen for business as usual on Monday. Others are less optimistic.

With reporting by Jeffrey Brainard.

Read our earlier shutdown story.

Meet some “essential” federal scientists who worked through the 2013 shutdown.

Read our complete coverage of the 2013 shutdown.