What the Government Shutdown Means for Science

On December 22nd, it wasn’t just the US government that shut down over disputes on how to fund the $5 billion dollar U.S.-Mexico border wall. With the federal shutdown came the shuttering of the National Air and Space Agency (NASA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Crippling repercussions were also felt at the National Science Foundation (NSF), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Parks Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientific collaborations with government agencies ground to a halt. Access to invaluable climate change data disappeared. Major scientific meetings were cancelled. Much-needed research grants, long-awaited graduate and post-graduate job opportunities, and government employee paychecks evaporated.

25 days later and we are still in the grips of a federal shutdown, now the longest in American history.

And there’s no sign it will be over anytime soon.


Blow-by-Blow Breakdown

Since the partial government shutdown began, roughly 800,000 federal employees and millions of people who use government-associated services have been affected. In the world of science, the effects of the shutdown have rattled — and continue to rattle — many. But as we enter the third week of the government shutdown with no historical precedent, its immediate and lingering effects become less clear.

Over time, this is how it broke down.

December 22, 2018

The FDA halts routine inspections addressing public health concerns, brings many ongoing research projects to a standstill, and rejects future applications to approve new drugs.

Image credit: Jacquelyn Martin/AP, MassLive
Impact: The FDA is responsible for inspecting non-meat food plants every couple of years. They work to detect regulatory violations such as products contaminated with listeria or rodent infestations. During the shutdown, these routine domestic food safety check-ups stop. However, screening of food coming from outside of the U.S. and foodborne illness outbreak response teams still function.
Prolonging the government shutdown also endangers new drugs. Pharmaceutical giants such as Janssen, Sanofi, and Novartis are currently waiting for the shutdown to break so they can submit applications for drugs that address a variety of health issues, ranging from depression to multiple sclerosis. Without a robust and active approval process for newly submitted drugs, important therapies are being put on hold. Although review is ongoing for drugs submitted prior to the shutdown, the FDA only wields enough funds to interrogate drugs for three more weeks. That puts powerful new therapeutics slated to be reviewed in March, such as GlaxoSmithKline’s HIV drug Tivicay/Epivir, in jeopardy.

December 28, 2018

The Farm Service Agency county offices of the USDA close.

Image credit: USDA Farm Service Agency
Impact: These offices process farmer loan requests, store account information, and supply farmers with critical payments to sustain them through difficult times. Without support from the government, many farmers cannot afford to purchase animal feed or seeds for spring crops. Without financial support or government trade bailouts, some farms face foreclosure, especially after a challenging year of tariff wars and uncertainty in global agriculture markets.

Approximately 95 percent of EPA employees are furloughed, with the only exceptions being emergency-response teams and employees responsible for preventing disasters at Superfund sites.

Image credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Impact: The EPA plays a preventative role by inspecting sites such as oil refineries, chemical factories, and water treatment plants for pollution and infractions of environmental law. One of the more effective components of the EPA is unannounced industrial site inspections, which encourage companies to uphold environmental regulations or face the consequences. With surprise inspections put on hold for much of December and January, company violations of EPA policy will likely not be caught or brought to justice.
Additionally, public discussions concerning the funding of Superfund clean-up sites are on pause. For example, in Chicago, many residents had outstanding questions on how to remediate severe lead contamination at a local elementary school. However, due to the shutdown, these questions could not be addressed before the proposal commenting deadline yesterday.
Surprisingly, even though the majority of EPA projects (such as the one above) are being tabled and the agency remains unfunded, preparations for the confirmation of Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler are ongoing.

December 30, 2018

The National Park Service suspends trash collection and road maintenance, among other services. Approximately one third of national park sites are closed.

Image credit: NCPA website
Impact: National parks host important cultural markers such as presidential homes, museums, and pristine yet fragile ecosystems. Furthermore, December and January frequently coincide with inclement weather conditions, which complicate park visits and increase the risk of accidents. As a result of the government shutdown, fewer personnel have been available to deal with overflowing toilets, unplowed roads, and the vandalism of historically or biologically significant sites.
The National Park service is also estimated to be losing $400,000 per day in entrance fee revenue. This holds worrying implications for the clean-up efforts that will follow the shutdown, with even more concerning effects on some of the U.S.’s largest parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite, which rely primarily on the revenue to cover their operating costs. Even worse, the Trump administration proposes to offset these losses by using entrance fees obtained during the shutdown, in spite of dangerous conditions and severely inadequate staffing. The National Parks Conservation Association is opposed to this approach, stating it “is illegal, violating at least four separate provisions of federal law.” Read their full statement here.

December 31, 2018

Nearly 85 percent of National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) staff are furloughed.

Image credit: AP Photo, The Takeaway
Impact: NIST develops the standards to improve U.S. technology infrastructure, like the smart electric power grid and electronic health records. NIST also publishes security standards that inform how enterprises can best protect themselves against cyber attacks. Under the government shutdown, these publications are delayed and corporate security teams are left in limbo.

Many parts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are affected. Roughly 45 percent of Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency employees are furloughed. Approximately 45 percent of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Office of Operations Coordination employees are also furloughed.

Image credit: DHS website
Impact: These parts of the DHS generate security intelligence for the larger intelligence community and ensure that networks and data remain safe. With the shutdown, the government’s security abilities are diminished.
As it drags on, cash reserves to sustain the DHS in the short-term will begin to run dry and greater vulnerabilities in our national security will develop.

January 2019

The NSF suspends its review of grant proposals indefinitely and tables immediate review of postdoctoral fellowship applications.

Image credit: NSF website
Impact: Many researchers are dependent on grant funding from groups like the NSF or NIH to fund their work and pay the students working in their labs. Without sure support from the NSF, many researchers don’t know if they should hire students or if they should stop their work completely until the shutdown is no longer in effect. Its funding has supported revolutionary discoveries in science and technology, including the development of the gene-editing technique, CRISPR-Cas9, and the search engine Google.
Image credit: Benjamin Corb’s Twitter
Moreover, ever since 1952, the NSF has awarded outstanding graduate students with a $34,000 annual stipend for three years. These funds allow graduate students to freely research abroad and explore new and exciting ideas that pinched funding would otherwise prohibit. It’s a vital support system for the next generation in STEM, and withholding these resources will have lingering effects on their education and research.
Looking at it by the numbers, the NSF awards nearly $8 billion to various research projects and initiatives every year. From December 21, 2017 to January 12, 2018, the NSF distributed $107 million in grants. From December 21, 2018 to January 12, 2019, no funding has been provided.

January 2, 2019

The National Zoo and Smithsonian museums close to the public.

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, Getty Images
Impact: The museums are an important resource for STEM education and awareness. By closing them, the government shutdown is disabling organizations such as the Smithsonian Science Education Center, which involves school districts representing 30 percent of the U.S. student population in science education and outreach initiatives. Beyond K-16 programs, visits to the Smithsonian often help guide young people towards a STEM career, with 30 million visitors in 2017 alone. Shutting down these museums limits people’s access to science, history, and visible STEM career pathways.

January 4, 2019

The USDA postpones the release of influential crop reports until post-government shutdown.

Image credit: Economic Research Service
Impact: The USDA is responsible for publishing the monthly World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report. This report includes agricultural data that inform crop forecasts, change seed prices, and influence farmer decisions when planting the next year’s harvest. Furthermore, it also provides farmers with a means to interpret changing global markets, distributing data on the wheat yield from top exporters such as the European Union and Australia. In an interview with Reuters, Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co, emphasized the gravity of the situation by stating, “Everybody needs a god, if you will, and in the grain world, the USDA tends to be that.”

January 8, 2019

The USDA delivers Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits early. The next distribution date would be March at the earliest.

Image credit: Allison Brophy Champion, Star-Exponent
Impact: SNAP is provided to low-income families in the form of a debit card which can be used to purchase food at participating stores. Currently, over 40 million people in the U.S. participate in SNAP on a monthly basis, with each person receiving approximately $125 per month on average. Through a loophole, the USDA was able to provide February 2019 SNAP benefits early. However, a much-prolonged government shutdown could delay or even jeopardize the release of March 2019 SNAP benefits.

January 14, 2019

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb tweeted that high-risk food inspections will be resuming as early as January 15th. These inspections, however, will be completed by employees without pay. The inspections that will be resumed represent about one third of the approximately 160 inspections the FDA performs weekly, leaving two thirds of routine food inspections incomplete.

Impact: Every year, foodborne illnesses kill 3,000 people and infect over 47 million more in the U.S. The FDA is responsible for catching these infections before they start by inspecting over 80 percent of the U.S. food supply. However, during the shutdown, it appears that only the inspections of high-risk facilities — such as those that handle seafood or cheese — will be reinstated. This major vulnerability cripples efforts to prevent outbreaks of E. coli or listeria before they infiltrate the consumer food supply.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Why It Really Matters

In both a domestic and global context, U.S. science is struggling. The necessary ingredients for its continued success — comprehensive research funding, sustained early-career support systems, and a shared optimism about the future of science among the next generation — is missing. To maintain its leadership at the cutting edge of science, the U.S. needs to decisively focus on attracting brilliant minds and culturing an inclusive and responsive scientific community devoted to innovation.

A government shutdown, however, is not needed.

Many scientists caution against the “gradual toll” of the shutdown. In future years, its repercussions will be felt not only as delays in grant funding and student hires, but as a growing cynicism towards U.S. research and scientific potential. In this light, the government’s effortless derailing of science appears to be symptomatic of a larger federal indifference for evidence, truth, and reason.

In such an unfavorable environment — one that vilifies the very ideological foundation of scientific inquiry — it is hard to imagine how, as young scientists, we are supposed to feel enthusiastic about our future. We are witnessing, through this shutdown, the instability and fragility of science careers in the U.S. We are maturing in an environment that appears to treat science and its funding with blatant disregard, one that leaves me inclined to seek careers outside of the USDA, EPA, or NASA.

So, as we approach the 26th day of the shutdown and more vital scientific organizations and agencies find themselves slowing to a crawl, the future of U.S. science — and its next generation of curious minds— is looking progressively less rosy.


Works Cited

“About.” NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, www.nsfgrfp.org/general_resources/about. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Ahmed, Beenish, and Tanzina Vega, producers. “Cybersecurity Threatened by Extended Government Shutdown.” The Takeaway, Public Radio International, 14 Jan. 2019, www.wnycstudios.org/story/cybersecurity-threatened-extended-government-shutdown. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Brophy Champion, Allison. “Federal government shutdown closes USDA Culpeper office while food programs remain active.” Culpeper Star-Exponent, 9 Jan. 2019, www.starexponent.com/news/federal-government-shutdown-closes-usda-culpeper-office-while-food-programs/article_bfe11d19-7205-5b0f-8225-07848178a533.html. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Corb, Benjamin. “Government Shutdown Update — Tallying the Impact on National Science Foundation.” American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Policy Blotter, 10 Jan. 2019, policy.asbmb.org/2019/01/10/government-shutdown-update-tallying-the-impact-on-national-science-foundation/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Douce, Emily, and John Garder. “How Is the Partial Government Shutdown Affecting National Parks?” National Parks Conservation Association, 11 Jan. 2019, www.npca.org/articles/2029-how-is-the-partial-government-shutdown-affecting-national-parks. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

“Due to the Lapse in Federal Funding, This Website Will Not Be Actively Managed.” Department of Homeland Security, 26 Dec. 2018, www.dhs.gov/blog/2018/12/26/due-lapse-federal-funding-website-will-not-be-actively-managed. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

Florenko, Nicholas, and Ike Swetlitz. “If the shutdown drags on at FDA, it will put anticipated new treatments in jeopardy.” Stat, 14 Jan. 2019, www.statnews.com/2019/01/14/shutdown-impact-on-drug-approvals/. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

“Government Shutdown Information.” United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, www.fsa.usda.gov/help/shutdowninfo. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

Hamers, Laurel. “Here’s how the record-breaking government shutdown is disrupting science.” Science News, 12 Jan. 2019, www.sciencenews.org/article/how-record-breaking-government-shutdown-disrupting-science. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

Healy, Jack, and Tyler Pager. “Farm Country Stood by Trump. But the Shutdown Is Pushing It to Breaking Point.” The New York Times, 10 Jan. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/01/10/us/farmers-trump-administration.html. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

Ingwersen, Julie. “U.S. delays key agriculture reports due to government shutdown.” Reuters, 4 Jan. 2019, www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-shutdown-usda/u-s-delays-key-agriculture-reports-due-to-government-shutdown-idUSKCN1OY1K9. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Kinney, Jim. “Federal shutdown stops FDA inspections, not production, with USDA still on the job.” MassLive, 11 Jan. 2019, www.masslive.com/business/2019/01/federal-shutdown-stops-fda-inspections-not-production-with-usda-still-on-the-job.html. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

McGinley, Laurie, and Joel Achenbach. “fda food inspections, reduced by shutdown furloughs, put ‘food supply at risk.’” The Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/experts-warn-of-safety-and-security-risks-from-government-shutdown/2019/01/08/855472e4-1362-11e9-90a8-136fa44b80ba_story.html?utm_term=.7c3047bfd4da. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

Meade, Birgit, and David Marquardt. “World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates at a Glance.” USDA Economic Research Service, 13 Dec. 2018, www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-economy/commodity-outlook/wasde-projections-at-a-glance/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

National Science Foundation. 26 Dec. 2018, www.nsf.gov/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

National Science Foundation. “Report shows United States leads in science and technology as China rapidly advances.” ScienceDaily, 24 Jan. 2018, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/01/180124113951.htm. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

“Public Notice: Comment Period and Public Meeting on a Proposed Amendment to the Cleanup Plan for the Residential Area (Zone 1).” United States Environmental Protection Agency, 7 Nov. 2018, www.epa.gov/uss-lead-superfund-site/comment-period-and-public-meeting-proposed-amendment-cleanup-plan#4D. Accessed 14 Jan. 2019.

“The Smithsonian Institution Fact Sheet.” Smithsonian, 26 Oct. 2018, www.si.edu/newsdesk/factsheets/smithsonian-institution-fact-sheet. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

“Visitor Stats.” Smithsonian, www.si.edu/newsdesk/about/stats. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

“What Is SNAP?” ThisIsSNAP.org, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, www.thisissnap.org/what-is-snap/. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.

Sophia Swartz

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