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U.S. scientists on edge as government shutdown looms

Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial federal government shutdown tonight that could scramble research projects and meetings, delay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

Unless the White House and lawmakers in Congress can reach an agreement by midnight to extend current spending levels, many agencies will be forced to furlough workers, halt routine activities, and shutter public facilities. A shutdown could make idle as many as 800,000 federal workers, including researchers working at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other science agencies. At the same time, employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—would remain on the job.

For better or worse, many researchers are familiar with the drill. In October 2013, the U.S. government partially shut down for 16 days after Republicans in Congress blocked spending legislation in an effort to repeal portions of the Affordable Care Act. This time, the Democrats (and a few Republicans) have taken the initiative by pledging to vote against further extensions of a current spending freeze until Congress protects hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants and agrees to lift caps on current spending.

The uncertainty has many researchers on edge. “I’ve never done science under these conditions, and it’s frightening to think how NIH can keep pace while perched on this congressional fault line,” Dániel Barabási, a research fellow at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, tweeted today. In recent weeks, he wrote, he and his colleagues have repeatedly spent days “prepping the lab for stability for an unknown number of days where we can’t step on campus. … Which has left my floor sitting around, half giddy, half nervous, unable to start work knowing they’d need to toss their day’s work” if a shutdown happens.

A shutdown “could impact my science in a very direct and immediate way,” Michael Ramsey, a planetary scientist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, wrote in an email. He’s already purchased tickets to participate in a NASA-funded study next week in Hawaii that is using aircraft and other instruments to collect data on active volcanoes and coral reefs. “This research is a cornerstone to my PhD student’s dissertation,” Ramsey wrote, and a shutdown “could jeopardize the science and result in a significant loss of funds.”

I’ve never done science under these conditions, and it’s frightening to think how NIH can keep pace while perched on this congressional fault line.

Dániel Barabási, National Institute of Mental Health

“I’m scheduled to participate in [an NSF] review panel next week for student proposals,” tweeted Gail Seigel, a biomedical researcher at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “I feel badly for them and the potential disruption of their careers.”

A funding lapse can also complicate communications. By law, federal employees involved in collaborations with academic researchers aren’t supposed to be working, so they “can’t work or talk during shutdowns. Causes all kinds of havoc,” tweeted Andrea Wiggins, an information scientist at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and the University of Maryland in College Park. “Puts studies on hold, manuscript delays, etc.”

For some researchers, it is déjà vu all over again. Neuroscientist Bryan William Jones of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City tweeted that, in 2013, “I had a grant under review. … [The NIH] Study section was cancelled and we were told to resubmit for the next cycle. That hurt as lab costs are not suspended for a shutdown.”

The 2013 shutdown cost the government at least $2 billion in lost productivity, and “put on hold most Federal government support for new basic research,” a White House report concluded. That total included 16,000 days of employee furloughs at NSF, 192,000 furlough days at NASA, and the furloughing of four Nobel Prize winners who worked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Astronomers lost more than 1000 hours of observing time at federally funded observatories, Arctic researchers had to cancel numerous expeditions, and biomedical researchers at NIH were unable to enroll patients in clinical trials. Lasers and particle accelerators at numerous federal laboratories were shut down, preventing both researchers and private firms from using the facilities.

Researchers are hoping they won’t have to go through it all again. But they may not know until late Friday night. In the meantime, ScienceInsider will be tracking developments.

Read our complete coverage of the 2013 shutdown.