No paychecks. No experiments. No reviews of grant applications. And no stink bugs by mail.
The financial, empirical, and entomological consequences of the partial shutdown of the U.S. government for science multiplied this week, as it became the longest such closure in history. More than a half-dozen agencies that fund or conduct research, including NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), have been partly paralyzed since 22 December 2018. And the fight between Congress and President Donald Trump over spending $5.7 billion on a border wall, which has shuttered about one-quarter of the federal government, shows no signs of being resolved.
The impasse has already meant a lost paycheck for some 800,000 federal employees, as well as missed payments for thousands more contractors and academic researchers. Agencies have canceled dozens of meetings to review thousands of funding proposals, at one of the busiest times for federal grantmaking. Researchers inside and outside of government have postponed, restructured, or just given up entirely on planned studies.
The shutdown could soon paralyze federally funded scientific facilities and research centers that have been largely insulated from the pain because they are operated by contractors who get paid in advance, often on a quarterly basis. “But now that quarterly check may or may not be coming,” says Benjamin Corb, public affairs director at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland. “The uncertainty is creating a real mess.”
At the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, which is funded by NSF but operated by a consortium of universities, managers are beginning to consider ways to scale back activities. Staff could be given the option of being furloughed without pay or continuing to work at reduced pay (with back pay once the shutdown ends). That could disrupt efforts to improve climate models and manage massive data sets, officials say.
NSF’s closure is also creating anxiety for would-be graduate students hoping to win a prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship (GRF) from the agency. Last year, the agency received more than 12,000 GRF applications and gave out 2000 awards, which provide graduate students with a $34,000 annual stipend for 3 years. Managing that massive operation requires sticking to a tight schedule. Some 2000 reviewers had already agreed to serve on about four dozen virtual panels set for later this month. But if NSF remains closed, those panels will not be able to meet. (The agency had already canceled 33 other proposal review meetings as of 14 January, according to Corb.)
NSF typically announces GRF winners by the beginning of April because U.S. graduate schools require accepted students to make a firm decision by 15 April. So far, the agency has no contingency plan in case its review process is delayed. “Nobody knows what will happen because there’s been no guidance,” says a former GRF program manager who requested anonymity.
At FDA, reviews of submitted drugs and devices already paid for by industry fees can continue. But some researchers who want to continue other work—developing new tools or methods for evaluating drugs, for example—must show that it is essential for health, safety, or protecting a federal investment (such as continuing an animal experiment that has already begun). The justification process is “a heavily scrutinized rigmarole,” says one FDA employee who asked to remain anonymous.
Agricultural research is taking a particularly heavy hit because it often involves collaborations between federal and private or academic laboratories. At the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, veterinary pathologist Kevin Lahmers has had to halt studies aimed at evaluating the livestock disease threat posed by the Asian longhorned tick, first discovered in the United States in 2017. He is collaborating with a USDA laboratory in Pullman, Washington, to determine whether the tick can help transmit a parasite between calves, but the lab is closed. The disruption “will handicap our understanding of the disease,” Lahmers said in a statement.
At a USDA research center in Montana, the closure has wrecked a 3-month-long experiment that was to be one researcher’s final act before retiring. The study, of how a fungi that grows on wheat might be used to defend the plants against pest insects, “was to be my ‘swan song,’” says entomologist Stefan Jaronski of the Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney. He expected to spend this week cleaning out his laboratory before retiring on 18 January after a more than 35-year career, including about 19 years at USDA. But now it isn’t clear whether the department can complete his exit paperwork. And his final experiment, which Jaronski was conducting with a collaborator from the nation of Georgia, is “down the tubes” because he hasn’t been able to collect data needed “not only for good science, but publishing.”
USDA entomologist Don Weber, who works on biocontrol agents at the department’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland, isn’t completely immobilized. He is allowed to enter his lab a few times a week to maintain insect and plant populations. But he can’t do studies. Nor can he mail invasive stink bugs from his colonies to other researchers who want them, hobbling efforts to find a defense against the growing farm pest. And Weber hasn’t been able to order a synthesized chemical that is key to an upcoming project because his contract office is closed. “I’m going to lose a field season,” he predicts.
Weber hasn’t let past closures derail his research. During a 16-day funding impasse in 2013, he went ahead and collected the final data in a long-term field study “in defiance of the shutdown,” he acknowledged in a 2014 paper. “The way I saw it,” Weber says now, “collecting that data was essential to protecting a federal investment. Otherwise, the money that had been spent would have gone to waste.”
With reporting by Jeffrey Mervis and Kelly Servick.