The government shutdown leaves scientists without the means to research

Lapses in funding lead to lapses in breakthroughs.
Lapses in funding lead to lapses in breakthroughs.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Today (Jan. 11) is the 21st day of the US government shutdown. This shutdown, which is currently tied for the longest ever, shows no signs of ending as Trump refuses to budge on his demands for $5.7 billion to build a wall between the US and Mexico.

In addition to the 800,000 federal employees who are forgoing their first paychecks today, the shutdown has stalled thousands of scientists who rely on federal funding. Throughout the year, various agencie— including the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, NASA, and the US Geological Survey—review and award financial grants, funded by the federal government, to scientists at universities across the country for them to carry out research.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much scientific funding has been delayed because each of these agencies work on a different time frame. However, we do know that the most recent federal budget, for the fiscal year of 2018 (which began October 2017), allocated $176.8 billion in total for research and development. We also know that, between Dec. 21, 2017, and Jan. 11, 2018—the same dates of the current shutdown, but in the previous year—the National Science Foundation (NSF) had allocated 307 grants totaling about $103 million in funding. Assuming a similar amount would have been awarded from Dec. 21, 2018 to Jan. 11, 2019, that’s $103 million that should have been awarded to research groups across US.

Though that money might eventually flow to researchers, the delay matters. As Axios notes, many of these grants go toward funding graduate students at universities. Without assurance of funding, lab directors may not be able to admit graduate students to their labs in the coming academic year.

“It’s an impact that’s going to be felt after the shutdown,” says Benjamin Corb, the director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who first alerted Quartz to the lag in NSF grants. There’s also a growing pileup of applications that have yet to be reviewed by NSF employees who are currently furloughed.

Research teams usually obtain funding from a variety of agencies. Teams may have some staff members who have been awarded funding already, but other key staff members may not be able to work without a functioning government. Tuesday Simmons, a graduate student studying microbiology at the University of California- Berkeley, told NPR she’s been unable to communicate with the head of her lab, who received funding from the US Department of Agriculture. As a result, experiments have been delayed.

In addition to individual labs, international groups of researchers may also be at a loss. As Nature reports, four out of 20 primary scientists working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report are based in the US, and have been unable to work with their international colleagues.

Meetings and information collection have also been disrupted. Without NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, researchers have not been able to compare temperatures in 2018 to previous years. Additionally, 700 furloughed federally employed scientists were forced to skip the annual American Meteorological Society and the American Astronomical Society meetings that took place this week, resulting in hundreds of missed presentations.

Science in the US hasn’t stopped altogether. Some researchers, including many at the National Weather Service, are working without pay. Additionally, there are research funds available for scientists from the private sector. However, the most recent data from 2017 indicates that about half of all basic research—research that isn’t done for the purpose of practical application—was funded by the US government.