*Update, 9 January, 1:30 p.m.: Shenandoah National Park today informed ecologist Jeff Atkins, featured below, that he will be allowed to enter the park for stream sampling despite the shutdown.
Rattlesnakes, bears, hurricanes, and freezing weather haven’t stopped ecologist Jeff Atkins from taking weekly hikes into Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park for the past 8 years to collect water samples from remote streams. But Atkins is now facing an insurmountable obstacle: the partial shutdown of the U.S. government, in its third week.
Park managers have barred Atkins from entering since 22 December 2018, when Congress and President Donald Trump failed to agree on a deal to fund about one-quarter of the federal government, including the National Park Service. That has shut down the sampling, part of a 40-year-old effort to monitor how the streams are recovering from the acid rain that poisoned them in past decades.
“It’s very frustrating to have this needless disruption” in what is one of the park system’s longest continuous data sets, says Atkins, a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “This is the biggest [sampling] gap we’ve had. … Now, there is always going to be this hole.”
Atkins is one of tens of thousands of U.S. scientists feeling the pain caused by the shutdown, which resulted after Congress refused to give Trump the $5.7 billion he wants for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The impasse has all but halted work at 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), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and parts of the Smithsonian Institution.
Many of the scientists at those shuttered agencies have been furloughed without pay, barred from working at home, and prohibited from checking their government email. A travel ban has hurt attendance at several major conferences and caused organizers to cancel other events.
The shutdown is also creating chaos for university researchers, private contractors, and others who collaborate with idled federal scientists, or depend on affected agencies for funding, facilities, and data. Besides doing lasting damage to some research projects, the standstill is threatening livelihoods. “In a moment’s notice, I went from believing I had secure income to not knowing when I would be paid,” says Marshall McMunn, an ecologist at the University of California (UC), Davis, on an NSF postdoctoral fellowship. He can’t even find out whether it’s OK to take a part-time job to help pay his bills.
Amy Freitag, a social scientist who does contract work for NOAA at the Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in Maryland, says the shutdown has “made it very hard to make progress on any research that involves my [NOAA] colleagues … or do any kind of planning.” Freitag has been able to continue working—from home and coffee shops—because her private employer is paid in advance. To stay on the job, however, she’ll need new assignments. But key NOAA managers have been furloughed.
Atmospheric scientist Rachel Storer, who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, but is employed by Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says, “My paycheck isn’t in immediate danger.” But Storer has suspended work on building digital simulations of cloud formation because she can’t get access to NASA supercomputers. (JPL is open because it is operated by the California Institute of Technology, a contractor.) “I have other work to fill my time … but it’s a setback,” she says.
The shutdown has also stung entomologist Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Some endangered bumble bees he has collected are now “sitting in a fridge in my lab” and can’t be shipped to USDA laboratories until they reopen. He notes that a few months’ delay in agricultural research “can mean a whole year of progress is lost, because if we don’t have the answers from the recent experiments, we don’t know how to prepare for the coming growing season.”
Marine biologist Mykle Hoban, a doctoral student at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology in Kaneohe, was to begin a 10-week project on fish taxonomy this week at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The museum is closed, and he can’t reach the researcher he’s supposed to work with, but Hoban still plans to take the trip “and hope for the best.”
Even researchers funded by agencies not affected by the shutdown are feeling the pinch. Rita Hamad, a health policy researcher at UC San Francisco, is supported by the National Institutes of Health, which is open. But she relies on data handled by staffers at the U.S. Census Bureau, which is closed. The result, she says: “I can’t publish timely evidence on policies that I study.”
Other scientists have been forced to cancel long-planned trips and meetings. USDA’s Forest Service pulled the plug on what would have been the 30th annual Interagency Forum on Invasive Species, scheduled for this week in Annapolis. “It’s just a very sad day for science,” says retired federal entomologist Michael McManus, who organized the forum and was expecting 200 attendees.
The travel ban forced hundreds of federal scientists to drop trips to major meetings held by the American Meteorological Society and the American Astronomical Society—in Phoenix and Seattle, Washington, respectively—where they had planned to present work. U.S. scientists will also be absent from a technical meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scheduled for this week in Vancouver, Canada.
On Twitter, astrophysicist Jane Rigby of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, mused about the implications of being furloughed. “Can’t work. Can’t travel for work. … Can’t use work laptop,” she wrote. “Can I think about the universe? Unclear.”
With reporting by Daniel Clery, Kelly Servick, and Paul Voosen.