What Would a Government Shutdown Mean for Science, Medicine, & Engineering?

By Valerie Ross | April 8, 2011 2:50 pm

What’s the News: With Congress yet to pass a budget, the country is facing a government shutdown unless lawmakers reach an agreement by midnight tonight. In addition to shuttering many government offices, the shutdown would likely cause present serious difficulties for federal government-funded research.

Difficulties Such As…

  • A wide range of government-backed research—from biologists studying stem cell lines to oceanographers gleaning climate information from maritime sensors—wouldn’t be funded during the shutdown. The delay will ruin some experiments, and leave others with large gaps in their data. One stem cell researcher estimated the shutdown would cost his lab $10,000 per person, and told NatureNews, “One day is tolerable, three days is a killer.”
  • Scientists working on NASA’s IceBridge project—a study using special aircraft to survey ice in Greenland—would get on their planes and (dejectedly, one assumes) head back to the States.
  • Clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health would be stopped or, at best, slowed. The NIH Clinical Center has an estimated 640 trials, 285 of which are for people suffering from cancer—but those studies would stop taking all new patients, including one child flown to the NIH Sunday on a Miles for Kids Program to take part in a trial.
  • Overall, about 10% of the $31 billion NIH budget goes to research within the institutes (as opposed to funding research at other institutions, like universities), meaning a shutdown would leave most of the NIH’s hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists without funding. “The last time we had a government shut-down, they told us that at the NIH the scientists doing the research on cancer and cures had to go home,” Senator John Kerry said today. “The only person deemed essential was the guy who came in to feed the lab rats so they’d still be alive when the government came to its senses.”
  • Not all research programs would be interrupted, however. Workers monitoring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellites would stay on the job, as would nine scientists monitoring radiation drifting from Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant towards the US, and researchers working on some long-term climate studies.
  • Toxic waste clean-up projects were stopped at 609 sites during the last government shutdown, an indicator that such projects might be stopped again.
  • Upgrades to GPS would be pushed back, since the government won’t able to pay for them as scheduled. Lockheed Martin has a $1.4 billion contract to make 30 new-and-improved Block III satellites, for instance—but to get the satellites, the government needs to provide that $1.4 billion. This might be an inconvenience in the short term, but could have major impacts on GPS availability and quality down the road.
  • Many federal websites may go dark. (Select sites would stay online, such as the IRS, since taxes are still due April 18.) A memo from the White House Office of Budget and Management said “The mere benefit of continued access by the public to information about the agency’s activities would not warrant” the expense of keeping the sites running. In addition, thousands of IT professionals would stop coming to work, potentially leaving government computer systems more vulnerable to attack.
  • The Endeavor space shuttle launch set for April 29 would be delayed. This was set to be the shuttle’s last launch. (We won’t comment on any symbolism there…)

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Albertyanks

  • RJK

    The whole situation is undeniably terrible. What I don’t quite understand is why all of these things have to stop. I mean, what would happen if all the folks doing the experiments and providing administrative support decided to just roll on? The funding issue I can wrap my head around; if the money pipe goes dry then it’s not really possible to acquire vital supplies. But what’s the deal with having the IceBridge people return to the States, for example? Why can’t they stay up in Greenland?

  • rak

    While I and most Fed scientists that I work with would gladly volunteer to keep working on our research and science missions during a short shutdown, Federal law forbids furloughed employees from volunteering to do any work related to our Fed jobs. That includes everything from working on papers to checking our government email inbox during a shutdown. We’ve been warned in several memos over the last couple of days that doing so is a criminal act.

    Will many of us continue to work on papers, etc. under the radar during a shutdown? How do you stop workaholics that are committed to and enjoy their work from thinking about their research?

  • ben

    I propose that, in addition to the ceasing of all but “essential” services, that all of congress’ pay be docked in proportion to the time of the shutdown.

    The shutdown is meant to put pressure on legislators, but something tells me they aren’t adequately pressured. Perhaps hitting them where it counts (their pocketbooks) would help.

  • Ryan S.

    It’s crazy to think that, given the ramifications of a shutdown, it would even be considered an option. The people in congress holding this country hostage with the threat of a government shutdown should be shut down come next November.

  • http://www.thewritersclinic.com Jean Gogolin

    @Ryan S. I wouldn’t bet that those in Congress holding the country hostage won’t be re-elected. My confidence in voters’ short-sightedness and tunnel vision (no, let’s call it what it is: stupidity) increases by the year, I’m sorry to say.

    A criminal act for gov’t employees to check their email?? Words fail.

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