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A Shutdown Veteran Can't Believe It's Happening Again

Go home. For the second time in 17 years, an impasse in Congress has shut down the National Science Foundation. A sign on its Arlington, Virginia, headquarters says it all.

Jeffrey Mervis/Science

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.”

One immediate headache for Lovinger is the cancellation of a panel that was scheduled to meet tomorrow and Friday to review grant proposals submitted to NSF this summer. “I had eight people coming into town, and they had already made travel arrangements. I had to tell them that the meeting was postponed until further notice.”

Unless Congress acts quickly, Lovinger will also have to miss the annual meeting of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C., which starts on Sunday. That’s because NSF paid for his registration. And although the meeting is only a subway ride away from his home, his attendance would violate the no-work provision of the shutdown. “So I’ll probably have to miss it,” he says.

Nearly 2 decades ago, Lovinger told Science that “what happened was unique, and I don’t think it will occur again.” Reminded of that comment, he chuckles before turning serious again. “I’m saddened that it has come to this,” he says. “It does not reflect well on our capacity to be a global leader in science.”