Andrew Lovinger had just arrived at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the fall of 1995 when he was furloughed for 3 weeks because of a budget fight between the Republican Congress and President Bill Clinton that shut down several federal agencies. Now the longtime director of NSF’s polymers program finds himself once again at home, the victim of another bitter feud between Congress and the president. “I was very much hoping that a shutdown could be avoided,” he told ScienceInsider yesterday.
Lovinger thinks that an extended shutdown will be more disruptive this time around. “It was probably easier back then because everything was done on paper. Things just sort of waited,” he says. “Now, everything arrives electronically. There will be thousands of e-mails on my computer when I go back, and it will be a lot harder to catch up.”
A patch of bushy land in southern Namibia has been singled out as the best candidate to host a major part of the world’s largest gamma ray telescope. Scientists meeting in Warsaw last week ranked the Namibian site as the best of five options for the southern array of the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), which will be comprised of two observatories, one on each side of the equator. Meanwhile, four sites competing for the CTA’s northern array all earned equal ratings.
Cosmic gamma rays are believed to be produced by violent astrophysical events such as supernovas. They can't be observed directly from Earth because they are blocked by the atmosphere, but Cherenkov telescopes spot them by detecting the flash of light caused by their collision with atoms in the upper atmosphere.
The CTA, expected to cost $270 million and be fully operational in 2019, would be 10 times as powerful as current Cherenkov instruments. It will focus on resolving two mysteries: the origins of cosmic rays, and the nature of the dark matter that physicists believe constitutes 85% of all matter in the universe. The 120-telescope project will have two parts: a southern array with 100 instruments distributed over 10 square kilometers and a northern array with 20 instruments spread over 1 square kilometer. Six nations are bidding to host the arrays, with the United States, Mexico, and Spain competing for the northern site, and Argentina, Chile, and Namibia for the southern.
A bird identification expert might not seem like an employee essential to keeping the U.S. government functioning. But ornithologist Carla Dove was one of a select corps of federal scientists deemed important enough to be exempted from a sweeping government shutdown that began today, paralyzing research funding agencies, shuttering a wide range of science projects, and sending home more than 800,000 federal employees.
“I’m getting prepared to be lonely,” Dove said yesterday, noting that most of her colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t be allowed to work. “It will be me and 650,000 museum specimens.”
The shutdown is the result of an epic stalemate between the Democrat-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which could not agree on how to finance the government for the 2014 fiscal year, which began on Tuesday. It is the first shutdown since the winter of 1995–96, when an impasse over spending priorities prompted agency closures that lasted nearly a month. This time, however, the disagreement centers on efforts to undo the new U.S. health care law known as Obamacare.
The crisis came to a head yesterday, as Senate Democrats four times rejected bills passed by House Republicans to defund or delay Obamacare in exchange for funding the government for a few months at existing levels. Without such appropriations, agencies technically have no money to spend.
Some agencies still open
A shutdown doesn’t mean that the entire government closes. It is largely business as usual at agencies the White House has deemed essential for public safety and national security, for instance, including the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.
Unless lawmakers reach a last-minute deal to keep the government open, at midnight tonight the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will go into a sort of hibernation mode. For more information on the shutdown, see this post from Jeffrey Mervis and David Malakoff on our sister site ScienceInsider.
On Friday, we described the likely impact on scientists funded by NIH and NSF if an agreement to continue funding the federal government isn't reached by midnight tonight. Here's what we've learned since Friday: (Link takes you to our sister site, Science Careers.)
BARCELONA, SPAIN—Following several years of drastic cuts, the Spanish government plans to be a little more generous to science in 2014. But the small increase in next year's budget—1.3% for Spain's civil research sector—comes as a disappointment for Spanish scientists, who had lobbied hard for a much more substantial increase.
"The Spanish government has completely ignored the requests of the entire scientific society,” writes Amaya Moro-Martín, a spokesperson for Investigación Digna, an organization of researchers, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider.
Immunologist Roger Perlmutter is shaking things up again at Merck. After eliminating a corps of managers in June, the newly anointed Merck R&D chief is now following through on the “major surgery” that he promised in an interview in The Wall Street Journal last month. The drug giant will cut 8500 more jobs as part of its ongoing overhaul.
When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed in June to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list—while adding a subspecies, the Mexican wolf, in the southwest—the agency found itself caught between the objections of environmentalists and the concerns of ranchers who fear greater losses of livestock. The controversy heated up earlier this month, when the agency excluded several top scientists from an expert panel that would review the plan, apparently because of their views that the wolves need protection.
Now, FWS is hoping for a fresh start. The agency has extended the public comment period on the proposed changes to 28 October, and they will begin a series of public hearings around the country. The first will be held tonight in Washington, D.C. The agency also announced today in a press conference that it will launch a new scientific peer review of the proposals that it says will be truly independent.
Few endangered species arouse passions in the United States like the wolf. It's an amazing comeback story. After more than 2 centuries of persecution, the gray wolf was reduced to a tiny band of survivors in northern Minnesota. But since the species as a whole was added to the endangered species list in 1978, wolves have rebounded in many places and now number more than 5200. (Even more live in Canada.)
The agency has already delisted distinct groups of wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2011, and in the Northern Rocky Mountains in 2012; both populations exceeded recovery targets by an order of magnitude. Smaller packs in Oregon, western Washington, and northern California don't qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the agency argues, because they are not separated from larger populations. The service contends that the gray wolf is not at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
The Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate has voted to strip controversial provisions from a measure that would temporarily fund federal operations, setting up a clash with the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives that could result in a partial shutdown of the U.S. government at midnight. But some lawmakers are still hoping to avert a shutdown with a last-minute deal to keep the government open for a short time while the two sides continue to negotiate.
A shutdown would have broad impacts on federal science programs, including halting granting activity at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), forcing most government scientists to stay home, and delaying work on NASA space missions. A small number of federal researchers deemed essential by their agencies would still report to work, such as those involved in caring for patients at NIH’s clinical research center, sustaining animal colonies in research laboratories, or handling weather data seen vital to public safety. Researchers who already have grant money in hand, or work for universities or companies that get money from the federal government, would not be immediately affected.
An investigative committee under Japan's ministry of health has confirmed that data in scientific papers resulting from clinical trials of Novartis's blockbuster hypertension drug Diovan were manipulated, several media outlets have reported today.
“I am taking a stand [on] the accessibility of research carried out by the government,” geneticist Michael Eisen of the University of California, Berkeley, tells ScienceInsider. “But I’m not interested in breaking the law.”
Eisen posted the papers without asking permission of the copyright holders, an apparent violation of U.S. law. But it would be up to the authors of the papers, not the journal, to take any legal action against Eisen, copyright lawyers say.
Eisen is no stranger to the fight for making scientific research accessible. He helped launch the open-access publishing movement by co-founding the Public Library of Science (PLOS), which publishes several free journals. Open-access journals give free access to readers and pay their bills by charging scientists a publication fee, while traditional journals charge subscribers or libraries.