October 1, 2013

Science Shutdown

Posted by kuhlenbrock

Today, 1 October 2013 marks the first shutdown of the United States’ Federal government since 1995. Unlike in 1995, zero appropriations bills have been passed for the current fiscal year. As a result, the effect of the shutdown will be much larger – more than 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed and numerous federally-funded services shutdown.

Earth and space science is not immune to this crisis.


A number of AGU members are directly affected by the shutdown, especially via furloughs. Here are approximate numbers of furloughs for agencies of AGU member interest:

  • National Aeronautic and Space Administration – 17,700 furloughs
  • Environmental Protection Agency – 15,100 furloughs
  • U.S. Geological Survey – 8,600 furloughs
  • Department of Energy – 8,500 furloughs
  • National Oceanic & Atmospheric Association – 6,700 furloughs
  • National Science Foundation – 2,000 furloughs

Further information on agencies’ shutdown plans, including what services are deemed “essential,” can be found here.

Data Collection

Not only does the government shutdown mean thousands of AGU members are furloughed, it also has a direct effect on AGU science and the ability of that science to inform and protect American communities.

U.S. government has shut down for the first time in 17 years. Image credit: Tommaso Galli, Flickr, http://bit.ly/19fuMLY

U.S. government has shut down for the first time in 17 years. Image credit: Tommaso Galli, Flickr, http://bit.ly/19fuMLY

Most political analysts expect this shutdown to last a week or longer. Government-owned research vessels out at sea must return to port for a shutdown lasting longer than 24 hours. This will put a halt to any research and data collection done aboard these vessels and delay any infrastructure deployment, like buoys and ocean bottom seismometers. How much time and money is wasted having to prematurely return these vessels to port, dock them, and then have to return them to sea?

The U.S. government employs thousands of pieces of infrastructure used to monitor the Earth and protect American livelihood. Some of those programs, like USGS’s volcano and seismic observatories, will keep employees on call to analyze data and respond to potential disasters. The National Weather Service deemed the majority of its workforce essential as well.

However, vital observation equipment like the LandSAT satellites, USGS stream gauge network, and a host of ocean and atmosphere observatory systems will remain online, collecting data but with no one to analyze the data, nor will the data be put online for public use. Farmers, fishermen, and a host of industry personnel rely on these systems and their publicly available data to perform their daily duties.

With the government shutdown, farmers, for example, can no longer easily see if their crops are stressed or determine soil moisture levels in their fields – this data is usually obtained from LandSAT. Communities in floodplains are at risk of flooding without the effective warning time usually provided by stream gauges. And fisherman will be without much of the marine information, like temperature, salinity, and pH, which are needed to optimize their harvest.


Fall is generally a busy time for scientific conferences. These meetings provide a great means for scientists to showcase their research, coordinate future projects, and discuss the next big research questions to address.

Government agencies and their scientists play a vital role in these conferences. Not only can they not participate in conferences occurring during the shutdown, but the shutdown will also prevent many scientists from receiving approval for meetings taking place in the next few months in time to meet abstract and registration deadlines.

Additionally, any federally-led conferences or panel meetings scheduled during the shutdown will be canceled, including NSF grant panels.

Costing Us More

The preparation for shutdown cost scientific agencies unfathomable amounts of time and money in developing contingency plans and instructing employees of protocol; time and money that could have been spent performing agencies’ mandates.

Delaying deployments and restarting observations and projects is often more expensive in the long run. Additionally, any “non-essential” employees currently on federal travel have to return home immediately. But they will likely need to return to their previous destinations to finish their work. How many extra plane tickets and hotel nights is that?

Furthermore, how many potential future government scientists have been dissuaded from entering the civil service because of the perceived threat of future shutdowns? How many U.S. educated and trained scientists will continue their careers abroad because of this unstable funding environment in the U.S.?

Even if the shutdown only lasts a few days (a best case scenario), not only has Congress cost American families hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay and put communities at risk, it has also potentially put the country on course to no longer be a world leader in scientific research and innovation.

Let’s all hope for a return to normalcy.

How Are You Impacted?

AGU would like to know how the government shutdown impacts you and your science. Please send your story to [email protected].

-Erik Hankin, AGU Public Affairs Coordinator