Temporary relief for scientists as the U.S. shutdown ends for three weeks

Temporary relief for scientists as the U.S. shutdown ends for three weeks

The longest government shutdown in the U.S. history came to a temporary end on 25 January as President Donald Trump approved a deal, funding the government for three weeks till 15 February. Though the scientific research community welcomed the news with a sigh of relief, they are wary as to how things will unfold beyond the three-week period. Uncertainty threatens the smooth recovery of research projects as the possibility of another shutdown looms large. If Trump’s demand for funds worth $5.7 billion to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall, which he promised in his presidential campaign, are unmet, he may shut the government down again.

Many academics believe that the partial government shutdown has had an irreversible damaging effect on scientific research as a number of experiments were halted, data samples got destroyed, and grant cycles got delayed due to the closing of federal research agencies. Several scientists affiliated with federal agencies had to stay at home without pay for over a month, while others had to cancel their scheduled field trips. "There used to be a feeling of stability, and now the stability is gone, in addition to eroding budgets and increasing bureaucratic demands. I know some people will hit the tipping point," said a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Federal agencies like National Institutes of Health were not directly affected by the shutdown as their funding was pre-approved. However, the shutdown hampered their working too as some of their procedures relied on other federal agencies that had to close down.

Scientists are worried as it will not be easy to reschedule the experiments hindered by the government closure as a lot of the samples under study have been either destroyed or contaminated. Some of the permanent damage to studies is evident such as in the case of an experiment by the Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of changing ocean chemistry on small invertebrate animals in waters off Northern Island. According to an article published in Nature, due to the shutdown, no data about the animals was recorded; thereby endangering the entire experiment. An anonymous postdoctoral scientist said that it would be extremely difficult to restart the experiment and added that it’s difficult to plan ahead in the face of another possible shutdown.

Most federal science agencies are grappling with the aftermath of the shutdown, the effects of which are likely to last for months. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are some of the agencies that had to stall their planned grant programmes.

While Congress has taken steps to resolve this issue and provide security to research funding projects, academics are skeptical about research opportunities flourishing in such an uncertain environment. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), believes that funding worth three weeks is better than a complete deprivation, but adds that the U.S. research enterprise cannot operate to its full capacity if it is guaranteed to work only for three weeks.

Meanwhile, Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency if Congress does not approve funds for the border wall. "I think there's a good chance we will have to do that," he said when questioned about the emergency declaration.


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