The partial shutdown of the U.S. government has ended, and science is back online—literally. Federal research agencies were greeted with varying degrees of fanfare when they finally fired up their Twitter accounts again today.
Usual suspects—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI)—are all operational.
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The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has a long history of expressing bipartisan support for research. But science lobbyists have grumbled that the panel has become highly partisan in recent years, stacked with conservative Republicans who don’t necessarily believe that research spending is a high priority.
Yesterday’s vote to end the 16-day government shutdown may feed such perceptions. The bipartisan deal offered by the Democratic-controlled Senate was not popular in the Republican-controlled House. It won the support of only 38% of 232 Republicans while attracting unanimous support among Democrats. But the measure fared much worse within the 22-member Republican delegation on the science committee.
In fact, only one Republican on the panel—freshman Kevin Cramer of North Dakota—voted yea. Every other member, from Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on down, nixed the agreement to fund the government for another 3 months and extend the nation’s ability to borrow money while both sides try to negotiate a long-term solution to the financial crisis.
Even Cramer’s support was half-hearted, however. In a short press release that doesn’t actually mention how he voted, the legislator describes the measure as “a short-term solution which will finally bring both sides to the table to further correct our federal deficit. It is far from ideal; however, we cannot let the pursuit of perfection be the enemy of improvement.”
As lawmakers in Congress debated a way out of the 16-day U.S. government shutdown, some cited its impact on science to make their point.
Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), chair of the Senate commerce and science committee, argued that the shutdown needed to end because it was giving foreign competitors a boost. “Just because House Republicans have shuttered the research arm of our government does not mean that overseas competitors such as China are pausing their research as well,” he said.
On the other side of the Capitol, Representative Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on a House spending panel that oversees several science agencies, also raised international concerns. This past Monday, he noted, “I was in the State of Israel. I met with the President and with a whole group of brain researchers from around the world. They had difficulty understanding, given our Nation's leadership on so many critical issues, that we could be in a paralyzed situation.”
For Jamie Collins, the end of the U.S. government shutdown means a chance to begin tracking breeding penguins. The oceanography graduate student is one of dozens of scientists at the U.S. Palmer Station in Antarctica who were buoyed by this morning’s announcement from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that it is “restor[ing] the planned 2013-14 austral summer U. S. Antarctic Program (USAP) activities to the maximum extent possible.”
“They told us this morning they are re-starting the season,” Collins writes to ScienceInsider. “So everyone is running around setting up their labs. We're all very excited about the re-opening, but we feel like we've been at the end of a very long yo-yo down here.” (See his blog for more impressions.)
An effort launched last year to reproduce published research (or not) has scored $1.3 million to validate 50 major cancer biology studies. The Reproducibility Initiative announced in a press release that the money, from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, would be funneled to try and repeat landmark work published between 2010 and 2012.
Alan Trounson, the Australian researcher who has headed California’s $3 billion stem cell institute for nearly 6 years, is stepping down to be closer to his family.
Trounson, 67, a leading in vitro fertilization researcher with biotech industry experience, was considered a huge catch when he agreed to leave Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, to become president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) in late 2007. He oversaw the agency’s shift from training, basic research, and new buildings to translational projects aimed at moving discoveries to the clinic. Overall, the agency has disbursed $1.9 billion in grants. During his tenure, CIRM also went through various controversies, including concerns about conflicts of interest and the abrupt departure of two of its leaders.
“I have loved working at CIRM and being part of something truly pioneering – a revolution in stem cell science and medicine – but ultimately it came down to a choice between CIRM and a life including my family,” Trounson stated in a press release yesterday. He has a 12-year-old son in Australia and three older children there, according to an e-mail he sent to the California Stem Cell Report, a blog that closely follows the agency.
The U.S. government shutdown has snuffed out the world’s most powerful laser facility. Researchers yesterday began standing down the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, anticipating a 21 October lab shutdown unless Congress agrees to fund government operations. The lab will wrap up preparations today, because it is giving workers a holiday on Thursday and Friday.
Nature doesn’t stand still. For scientists who keep tabs on important but constantly changing ecosystems, that fact looms large as the U.S. government shutdown continues.
Ecosystem studies often depend on extensive time-series data sets to tease out sometimes subtle shifts, and missing even a single field season can create unfillable gaps. Scientists are used to having peers pull the plug on their research as part of the merit review process, and they also know that some research interruptions are inevitable. But they’re bristling at the prospect of losing data as a side effect of an unrelated political brawl.
One casualty of the shutdown is a 23-year study based at Palmer Station in Antarctica that tracks how fluctuations in annual sea ice affect the polar biota, including the continent’s penguins. The project is led by Hugh Ducklow, a biological oceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. And this week the team, some of whom just arrived, learned that they would have to turn around and go home next week unless Congress resolves the spending showdown by Monday.
“In the past, bad weather might have meant we lost days or weeks of data,” Ducklow says. “But we’ve never had an entire year’s interruption.”
Ducklow’s study is one of 26 Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) projects funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). And although many LTER sites have sufficient money in the bank to operate despite the shutdown, they aren’t immune from the crisis.
Getting the cold shoulder
The Palmer LTER site, established in 1990, is on standby because of NSF’s decision this week to put all three U.S. Antarctic stations on caretaker status. The agency has no money to pay the contractor, Lockheed Martin, which provides logistical support to the stations.