Shutdown!

Science  02 Oct 2013:

DOI: 10.1126/science.1246719

On 1 October, more than 800,000 workers in the U.S. federal government received notices that they should not report for work “until further notice.” The federal government is effectively closed for business while the two branches of the U.S. Congress argue about whether a continuing resolution to fund the government until mid-November should defund health care reform in the process. Those laid-off workers include tens of thousands of government scientists deemed “nonessential.”

Although the threat of a government shutdown had been looming for quite some time, I suspect that many scientists who had to abandon their work were not entirely prepared for the reality. It has been 17 years since the last shutdown, also over a medical issue (Medicare). As leader of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) during President Obama’s first term, I helped prepare numerous shutdown plans for what has sadly become something of an annual drill, but fortunately I never had to implement any of them. In each case, Congress enacted budget legislation to keep the government funded, even if only minutes before a midnight deadline. But this time, government scientists are literally locked out. The government rules for a shutdown are so strict that many scientists are not allowed to continue their work even as unpaid volunteers. They have no access to their facilities or their government-issued computers. Experiments are interrupted, time series are broken, continuity is destroyed, and momentum is lost.

The entire scientific community will suffer if the shutdown is allowed to endure for any substantial length of time. University and industry laboratories cannot take up the slack: The research portfolios of the science mission agencies have been tuned in such a way that they do not compete with or duplicate the work done in nongovernment facilities. With the vagaries of peer review and the finite duration of grants, it falls to government agencies to maintain critical long-horizon time series and infrastructure such as monitoring networks and observing systems. The science mission agencies have been responsible for much of the applied science done in the public interest; with the shutdown, they will no longer be able to track flu outbreaks, update real-time information on water quality and quantity, improve weather forecasts, develop advanced defense systems to keep us safe, and serve many more immediate needs. Many government laboratories are also involved in translational activities that have not attracted private-sector investment. Regulation, permitting, and oversight of some aspects of research typically fall to the federal government as an essential ingredient for the public good. Without the contribution from government science laboratories, the U.S. research system is greatly compromised.

A shutdown takes a direct economic toll as well. Any organizations waiting for federal grants to be processed are left in limbo and may need to seek bridge funding to pay salaries. For federal employees, the pain is immediate and personal. Paychecks stop. Many federal agencies are already furloughing employees for part of the year to cope with the recent budget sequester. Adding the shutdown to any furlough is a deep hardship for families just making ends meet.

I sincerely hope that this shutdown is resolved quickly and that the impacts are minor. But if not, I urge the research community to take stock of real economic hardships, opportunities lost, and damage done, so as to more effectively argue for congressional action on the federal budget. From my time at the Department of the Interior, I know that one of the most effective cases against federal shutdown was made by the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS was armed with excellent economic estimates of the nationwide ripple effects of closing the national parks on travel and tourism for both domestic and foreign visitors. I hope that the research community can do as well as the NPS.

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