APS News

Shutdown is Symptom of Larger Science Funding Woes

By Michael Lucibella

The government shutdown, ending just as APS News goes to press, had serious but uneven effects on the country's federal science efforts. All federally operated laboratories were shuttered and employees furloughed, while labs run by contractors remained open. However, experts say that the bigger, longer-term danger to science was not the shutdown itself, but changing attitudes towards discretionary spending on Capitol Hill.

In the short term, the shutdown was disruptive to research at labs across the country. Existing experiments were halted and new experiments were delayed. However, it's unclear what effects the work stoppage will have on the nation's science output in the long run.

Work at most of the nation's radio telescopes was suspended, and some lab animals that were part of medical trials had to be euthanized. The Antarctic research station was put into "caretaker" status, delaying the setup and start of new experiments at the beginning of their busiest research season. However, not all federal facilities were affected equally. Sixteen of the Department of Energy's 17 national laboratories are contractor-operated. They remained open, but as a precaution, most labs started restricting employee travel and instituting other cost-saving measures.

"If the shutdown had lasted five days, ten days [or] 15 days, those labs in general wouldn't have been affected," said Michael Lubell, Director of Public Affairs for the APS. "But if it had gone on for several months then yes, they would have been affected."

The legislation ending the shutdown did not provide a permanent solution to the problem. The government is currently funded through the middle of January. If a broader budget agreement is not reached in the interim, another shutdown could be in the offing.

During the shutdown, the National Science Foundation was dark and stopped issuing new grants, but researchers funded by NSF grants could continue to work at their own institutions. The Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency stayed active as it was funded through multi-year grants. NIST and the National Institutes of Health closed down. 

Before the shutdown ended, APS President Michael Turner told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that these disruptions in research could hurt the US's global standing in science.

"[W]hile the game of political 'chicken' inside the Beltway drags on, the very basis of our economy's competitiveness is slowly being eroded," Turner said in his statement. "It is only a matter of time before our global lead in the sciences is irreparably harmed."

Past shutdowns offer some insight as to what problems different institutions faced. Since 1976, there have been seventeen "spending gaps," most lasting a week or less. The most recent, and longest, lasted 21 days, stretching from December of 1995 into early January 1996.

In that shutdown, National Science Foundation headquarters was almost completely empty, save for the Director, Neal Lane, a few other political appointees and security guards. Proposal reviews came to an abrupt halt, and new grants stopped being issued.

"The impact on the researchers on campus was not immediate," Lane said. "So long as there was money already there, their work could continue…had it lasted longer, the impact would have been more severe."

Siegfried Hecker was in charge of Los Alamos at that time. He said that for them, the shutdown was "essentially a non-event." However, when a budget was finally passed, the lab faced significant cuts late in the year and was forced to let about 1,200 people go."The issue was not so much the government shutdown, but really a budgetary process that had gone haywire," Hecker said.

Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS's R&D Budget and Policy Program, echoed Hecker's sentiments. He said that though not everything is comparable to 17 years ago, researchers are again facing deep cuts to science spending. Sequestration has already reduced discretionary spending by about eight percent, and it's unclear if the current budget standoff will result in more cuts.

"Science is inherently a long-term activity, so a pause is not necessarily the end of the world," Hourihan said. "The bigger point of concern for me at least…is the fact that the shutdown is a symptom of a bigger problem."

Federal spending on science has been nearly flat since 2010 as a percent of total discretionary spending and down in actual adjusted dollars. Experts worry that this decline will likely continue. Congress has not passed a budget since 2009, and it seems unlikely to dramatically change course on science spending in the near future.

"[The shutdown] was a big disruption, but it's not the real long-term threat to competitiveness the same way a restricted budget environment is," Hourihan said.



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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella