After Government Shutdown, Researchers Wary of U.S. Commitment to Scientific Enterprise

By Tawanda W. Johnson

two researcher in Antactica

Photo by Jim Haugen/NSF

Pictured in Antarctica before the federal government shutdown are (L-R) Laura Gladstone, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Karen G. Andeen, a post-doctoral research associate with the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology based at CERN.

The 16-day federal government shutdown left scientists reeling due to furloughs and the curtailing of research projects and conference travel. As a result of the shutdown, scientists remain wary of the government's commitment to long-term scientific research.

"My colleagues in Europe have much more stable funding situations, and over the years I've been a graduate student, I've seen more and more of my peers look for post-graduate jobs overseas because the market is better and more stable," said Laura Gladstone, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who works on the IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole. The Antarctic program, funded by the National Science Foundation, was on the verge of being canceled during the shutdown. Scientists lost valuable time to ramp up their work during austral summer at the site. Upgrades to computer services, for example, should have occurred a while ago, but due to the shutdown, they were delayed. Travel was also put on hold, said Gladstone.

"We already make it astoundingly difficult for scientists who studied in the U.S. to get visas to remain and work here, and making the funding unreliable fits with a pattern of making science a low national priority," added Gladstone.

Prior to the government's re-opening, the U.S. scientific enterprise was on the brink of a catastrophe as the U.S. Department of Energy's 17 laboratories prepared to close at the end of October. Such a move would have left thousands of people without jobs and shuttered more than $10 billion in facilities paid for with American tax dollars.

As the federal government shutdown lingered, laboratories operated by the Energy Department, including Brookhaven, Fermilab, Argonne and SLAC prepared to close facilities used by more than 30,000 scientists engaged in cutting-edge research that could lead to new drugs, materials and electronics. Moreover, DOE labs halted expenditures for construction projects, purchase orders and scientific conferences.

At the NSF, the situation was also horrific. The Magnet Lab at Florida State University, radio and optical telescopes, and other cutting-edge projects faced a similar fate as the DOE Labs. In addition, the agency did not fund any new grants, and scientists' research projects remained in jeopardy. 

Additionally, NASA furloughed 97 percent of its workforce, leaving vulnerable extremely sensitive and expensive equipment for projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble telescope. Even four Nobel Laureates failed to escape the impact of the government shutdown: Eric Cornell, William Phillips and David Wineland, all of whom work at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and John Mather, who works at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, were furloughed.

The government shutdown has left students pondering the future of American research.

"At a time when the rest of the scientific world is ramping up, the U.S. should be stepping up its game to ensure that we are competitive in an increasingly global economy," said Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society.

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