October 29, 2013
The recent shutdown of the U.S. government highlighted the critical role that government funding plays in supporting scientific research. This week’s edition of Eos, AGU’s newspaper covering Earth and space science, features an article assessing the impacts of the shutdown through interviews with AGU members in a variety of fields. The interviews reveal common concerns across the geosciences about losses of data, inability to make long-term plans, and worries about the future of science due to continuing sequestration cuts discouraging young scientists from staying in the field.
Data continuity is an issue that faces many scientists returning to their work. The interviews revealed concerns among Antarctic researchers, atmospheric scientists, hazards experts, and others that the shutdown led to gaps in data records and damage to instruments that were not maintained. For example, Suzette Kimball, acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey, told Eos that “the accuracy and timeliness of hazard information products was affected,” specifically outages in USGS’s earthquake monitoring network. In many instances, even if data was gathered, instruments were not calibrated on schedule, leading to concerns about the validity of the data. Unfortunately, many of these losses interrupt long-term, continuous data sets.
Research requires long-term planning which proves difficult when faced with uncertain future funding. For example, NASA projects take many years from concept to completion and cannot sustain continued cuts over the life of a project. Cora Marrett, acting director at the National Science Foundation (NSF), told Eos that “[i]t is difficult for researchers and educators to do any long-range planning when you don’t know exactly what the funding is going to look like.”
The federal shutdown, coupled with continuing sequestration cuts, hurts the morale of scientists and jeopardizes future generations of scientists. Dan Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told Eos that the shutdown “sends a message to present practitioners of science, as well as the next generation of potential scientists and engineers, that their work, no matter how time critical, no matter how important to the nation’s future, no matter what the work may mean to our country’s image in the world, still can be thrown away because of differences between political factions.” Other scientists expressed their concern that steady declines in federal research funding signals that researchers’ work is not valuable, leading to demoralization of current scientists and fewer students pursuing science careers.
On 16 October, President Obama signed a bill, passed by both chambers of Congress, to reopen the government until 15 January. In the meantime, a budget committee of House and Senate members is charged with developing a long-term spending plan by 13 December.
Tell AGU how the government shutdown affected your research and what you think that means for the country, your community, or the state of science. To share your story, or one from a colleague, please email [email protected].
-Meg Gilley, AGU Public Affairs Intern