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U.S. scientists brace, again, for a government shutdown

Here we go again. Scientists in the United States are bracing for a partial shutdown of the federal government that is expected to begin at midnight. It would be the third shutdown of the year (although one lasted just 9 hours), and could scramble research projects and meetingsdelay grants, and complicate hiring and training.

Unlike some past shutdowns, this one will not affect the entire federal government. Congress has already approved, and President Donald Trump has signed, spending bills that fund about three-quarters of federal activities. That means any shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

But Congress has not finished work on bills that cover nine departments and some other key science agencies. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the interior and agriculture departments. Unless the White House and Congress can reach an agreement today to extend current spending levels for these agencies, they will be forced to furlough an estimated 380,000 employees. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical health and safety activities—such as air traffic control and military missions—will be required to work without pay.)

Many researchers have experience with what might be coming. 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, Trump and Congress—especially Democratic lawmakers—can’t agree on funding for the border wall between the United States and Mexico that Trump promised to build during his presidential campaign.

As a result of the 2013 shutdown, some scientific facilities shut downmeetings were canceledprojects in Antarctica ground to a partial halt, and reviews of federal grant applications were delayed, in some cases by many months.

“There will definitely be a disruption in the grantmaking process,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia. It also means scientists and university administrators won’t be able to talk with NSF program managers if any questions arise about NSF-funded research. But NSF has no in-house labs, Greenwell noted, and the contractors that run major NSF-funded facilities such as observatories and research vessels have enough money in their accounts to weather a short-term shutdown.

Some science groups are already reacting to the looming impasse with concern. “Shutdowns, which waste American resources and taxpayer dollars, have grave consequences for science and research, public health, public lands and species protections,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a statement. “[I]f a scientist misses the window of research opportunity because of a shutdown, it has a real impact on the agency’s science-based work—and taxpayer dollars.”

As a result of a quirk in the calendar, any shutdown would not begin to bite deeply until Wednesday of next week, when furloughs would begin. Many federal employees do not work on the weekend, and Monday and Tuesday are federal holidays.