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U.S. scientists breathe a sigh of relief as government shutdown to end

It’s over—at least for the moment. The U.S. Senate today voted 81–18 to advance legislation funding government activities through 8 February, essentially ending a partial government shutdown that had moved into its third day. The House of Representatives is expected to follow suit, sending the bill to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Those actions would restore normalcy for U.S. researchers who are employed by, or dependent on, the federal government for funding and facilities. This morning, many research agencies had suspended activities because of the funding lapse, shutting down public websites, preparing to shutter laboratories, and planning to postpone grant review panels. Many academic researchers, meanwhile, were trying to decide whether to cancel travel and research plans that depended on federal partners.

Now, agencies are expected to fully reopen for business by tomorrow. 

“We were very excited to hear that we have money to continue operations,” says two-time shutdown veteran Al Singer, chief of the Experimental Immunology Branch at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. His group spent much of the morning “having a lot of discussion. We were all quite confused. We didn’t know how long the shutdown was going to last and whether we really needed to shut down.” In the end, they did a few essential mouse experiments and took steps to maintain the genetic purity of their thousands of mice if they needed to stop for longer.

"One day is not a disaster. The problem is that how long it would be is uncertain. The uncertainty creates the potential for a lot of problems, Singer says. “I hope we don’t have to do this again,” he adds. “This is really a very inefficient way of progressing.” 

“I’m very happy,” says Michael Ramsey, a planetary scientist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. The shutdown had imperiled his plans to travel to Hawaii to  participate in a NASA-funded study that is using aircraft and other instruments to collect data on active volcanoes and coral reefs. The shutdown “is over quick enough that likely none of the personnel in charge of the NASA aircraft and instruments in Hawaii have left yet. So, I foresee a very minimal loss of data collection (probably only today)… More importantly, my graduate student is relieved since these data are vital to his Ph.D. research.” Ramsay now plans to fly to Hawaii this coming weekend.

Today’s agreement gives lawmakers and the White House another few weeks to negotiate a final budget for the rest of the 2018 fiscal year that began this past October. Congressional Democrats also are hoping to strike a deal with the Republican majority over how to handle hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Read our earlier shutdown coverage here, here, and here.

With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser