US government shutting down science too

By Grant Jacobs 03/10/2013 10

Lest people in New Zealand think that the US budget suspension only impacts on public departments, it also affects science. This doesn’t just affect the USA either. And in news just in (to me), two well-known twitter accounts seem to have been suspended. More on that last at the end, but first the effect on science.

Conference attendees told to bail

One Australian scientist, Dr Darren Saunders tweeted that a conference speaker who had flown to Australia from the USA couldn’t speak at the meeting, –

FFS, scientist we invited all the way from US to talk at #Combio2013 just told us he’s not allowed to present 2day because of Govt shutdown

followed by,

Imagine flying 24+ hrs from DC to Perth to talk, and then being told you’re not allowed to present because politicians can’t do their job

then later (in reply to a question),

yep, explicit instructions. Not even supposed to attend other sessions as audience

ABC is now carrying more on this story, e.g.

“It’s actually a federal offence if I do go ahead and give the talk or even continue attending the conference so I have to keep away basically, I can’t even listen to everyone else’s work.”

Others attending, or about to attend, conferences elsewhere have reported similar stories. If this is systemic, as it appears to be, I can’t imagine how many conferences are being disrupted.

Intramural staff told to go home

Word at various source are that intramural staff have been told to go home. These from reddit,

As far as I am aware, all NIH employees are forbidden from coming to work, using any govt equipment, or even checking their work email. This means that all “intramural” research is shut down completely (maybe someone else can comment on this).


I work at the USDA. To put it simply, everything is stopped. We have support staff to keep plants and insects alive. We are not allowed to conduct any research while on furlough, we cannot access our e-mails, files, technology, etc. In fact, if we are caught working on anything we can be fined.

Our building is closed. Only the skeleton (e.g. 3) staff can enter. Anyone who is not funded by the gov’t will still be paid, but they cannot actually enter the building to do work so they are ‘exempt’ but not allowed on campus to do work…

We cannot travel, all travel to conferences is cancelled through Oct. 20th.

HOW this will impact the research for the next year really will depend on how long the shutdown lasts. We have field plantings, greenhouse experiments, cell cultures, etc. and it is all on hold. So, we’ll see.

Grant reviews postponed

Although grant submissions appear to still being filed, grant funding committee meetings are being postponed. That’ll have major impacts. Grant review committees usually include many senior scientists and co-ordinating their schedules to a common date is not easy and usually done a long way in advance. Potentially, one lost meeting could set back many people’s grant months. (I have read a first-hand account of a reviewer whose grant review meeting was cancelled as a consequence of the US government shutdown, but have not yet received a response to asking if I might share his words here. A point he made was concern if junior faculty had months of ‘spare’ support to cover this.*)

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a major research grant funding agency in the USA has notified that “All panels scheduled to occur during the shutdown will be cancelled and will likely be rescheduled to a later date.”  and has summarised it’s shutdown,

  • No new funding opportunities (program descriptions, announcements or solicitations) will be issued.
  • FastLane proposal preparation and submission will be unavailable.
  • may be up and running, however, since FastLane will not be operating, proposal downloads from Grants.govwill not take place. Therefore proposals will not be checked for compliance with NSF proposal preparation requirements or processed until normal operations are allowed to resume.

Many more restrictions are noted on the site.

Similarly, the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—another major funding agency in the USA—has advised they are receiving grant submissions, are not processing them and advising that “applicants are strongly encouraged not to submit paper or electronic grant applications to NIH during the period of the lapse”. They elaborate on the situation for grant reviews, –

For the duration of the funding lapse, the NIH will not be able to conduct initial peer review meetings – whether in-person or through teleconferences or other electronic media. Also during this time, the NIH staff will not be able to send or receive email messages, or update website information, and NIH computer systems that support review functions will not be operational.  When operations resume, those meetings will be re-scheduled and the pending applications will be processed and reviewed as soon as possible.

Projects at risk because of delays

NPR tells us that,

at the NIH clinical center:

  • No new studies will be started. Four had been slated to begin this week, but won’t if the shutdown continues.
  • No new patients will be enrolled in any of the 1,437 studies now underway. Roughly 500of those are studying new drugs and devices, and of those 255 are looking at cancer treatments for adults and children.
  • The hospital’s reduced staff will continue to care for existing patients, but new patients will not be admitted unless the NIH Clinical Center’s director deems it medically necessary.

Meanwhile, workers will show up to feed and care for animals in NIH labs, but basic research conducted by NIH scientists there will stop.

and at the US Geological Services that, among other things, keeps an eye on geological events like earthquakes,

[…] only 43 of its 8,600 employees are deemed essential and working during the shutdown. Just before she was furloughed Tuesday, a USGS spokesperson NPR’s Richard Harris that there will be skeleton crews working at headquarters, at the earthquake center in Boulder, Colo., and at the volcano observatories, plus a couple of people are continuing to keep an eye on the data coming in from the two Landsat satellites. These spacecraft collect critical information about the earth’s surface that’s used by scientists and businesses. For now, the satellite data will only be archived, and analyzed and distributed as images later.

MAVEN, NASA’s latest mission to Mars is potentially at risk,

The U.S. government shut down on Oct 1st, sending approximately 97% of NASA’s total workforce home without pay, leaving only a skeleton crew to support the astronauts on the International Space Station.

NASA’s shutdown guidelines [pdf] state that “if a space launch has not commenced or is not in flight, preparation activities will generally cease, except to maintain powered systems to monitor and maintain the safety of the assets.”

If that sounds a little vague, it is. But it’s really hard to know what the impact to MAVEN’s schedule will be. It’s an understandably fluid situation, and the full impact of a shutdown – if it even happens at all – won’t be known until after the government resumes its business. Even Lockheed-Martin, the prime contractor building MAVEN, doesn’t know what will happen yet.

The worse-case scenario is that MAVEN misses its launch opportunity to Mars. These only come around every 26 months and remain open for only a short time. MAVEN’s has only 20 days between November 18th and December 7th. If MAVEN cannot launch in time, it will have to wait for the next opportunity in early 2016, a delay that would cost NASA’s Planetary Science Division tens of millions of dollars it cannot afford.

More on the MAVEN issues on reddit,

Civil servant scientist at NASA here. I’m working on the next mission to Mars (MAVEN). It is designed to investigate atmospheric change at Mars and its effect on the climate over time. The spacecraft is at Kennedy Space Center now and is basically totally finished and was about to be loaded on the rocket for launch to Mars in November. Last I heard yesterday, it was instead being moved into hurricane resistant storage since we don’t know how long the shut-down will be. If we don’t launch in November then we will have to wait until 2018 when the orbits of the planets again properly line up. As you can imagine there are a number of steps in putting a finished spacecraft into storage and a number of steps to load it into the rocket. As of right now, we can still probably make it but we’re definitely anxious.

On the plus side, my newborn daughter and I spent the day hanging out.

Others point nervously to long-planned field work that has to be executed in a particular season or alongside collaborators.

Core infrastructure under fire?

PubMed, the access to the research literature for many in the biological and medical sciences is running on limited staff:


This, potentially affects researchers internationally, not just within the USA. Like many, I use PubMed daily.

Some important computing resources are off-line too (via reddit),

NASA’s Discover Supercomputer (and presumably others – I use this one in particular) has been shut down, meaning that the the research performed on that machine has been suspended.

There will no doubt be other examples.

Accounts of how individuals and their groups are affected

These can be found at many sources, including reddit,**

I am currently working at a very remote scientific research station in Antarctica, I did an AMA about it two days ago.

We just got an e-mail from our program director that said, in essence, that if this only last for a few days we should be okay. They’re still sending our next resupply boat down next week, which is important because it’s bringing our yearly load of fuel and food. Beyond that, we’re not sure. We don’t have an airstrip or helipad here, so that ship is our only link to the outside world.

We currently have funding for procurement and operations through mid-October; the next two weeks. If things start going longer than that, I’m not sure. The current plan, if the sequester lasts that long, is to begin an orderly transition to caretaker mode at all three of the USAP (United States Antarctic Program) stations. Get all scientists and most support personnel out, leaving only a bare minimum skeleton crew just to keep things going until we get funding again, whenever that happens.

CMA: I’m just a grunt; I do not speak for the NSF, the USAP, Lockheed-Martian or any of the support contractors.


I am a full-time federal employee now officially furloughed.

I’m not allowed to do anything or use any government equipment (including any remote access to my email). The only people permitted are a skeleton crew to keep any ongoing living experiments alive. Spent the day making sure all university contractors had at least 2 weeks material to do work on university machines and lab space, so they don’t have to take leave.

My biggest worry is fishing quotas. Our fish surveys end in August. The quotas have to be set by the beginning of the calendar year. Due to public review needs, the statistical analysis (LOTS of work) needs to be completed by mid-October. Even in a normal year, everyone works overtime.

So if this drags on more than a few days, the (political) council who makes the final decision on quotas will be doing so with last year’s data and no new analysis. Not, not ideal, and perhaps open to lawsuits. Note that practically every stage of this process (including waiting periods for public comment, etc.) are pretty strongly enshrined in law.

and this Masters’ student,

I’ve been using NASA’s computers to run radiation simulations on spacecraft, to help improve the software NASA uses to design shielding for spacecraft (real and theoretical) in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and deep space. Because of the shutdown, I (and my boss) have been deemed non-essential. My remote access has been revoked, and his laptop has been confiscated while he was sent home until time TBD. Yesterday was a 24-hour marathon of “let’s see how much work we can get done and download for data analysis at home.” I finished a fair amount of runs, but not enough (my code takes hours to run one simulation, so I could only fit a couple new ones in).

Two fun kickers. 1) I’m technically a NASA employee, but really I’m a volunteer. So I don’t even get paid and I’m still shut out. 2) The deadline for my thesis (because of funding) is November 29th. If this lasts more than a week, it’s likely I won’t be done in time. Which will delay graduation until May. Which means I’ll have five months of not having a degree in my field,

Small businesses drawing from grants are affected too

This example from reddit,

We don’t have any federal grants, but I am a scientist with a small vaccine R&D start up. We were slated to have a meeting with the FDA in the next month to discuss moving forward with an IND application and bringing our first vaccine to clinical trials. Now….it is looking like that meeting won’t happen. Its a bit terrifying, since our gap funding is about to run out and our next round of funds was dependent upon the meeting with the FDA. I’ll be upset if we close our doors and can’t try bring our (potentially very useful) vaccine to market because of this.

Another example of a small business being affected is cited by Nature. GigaGen found themselves unable to access the funds they had just been awarded by the NIH,

The biotech chief executive planned to withdraw some of the cash from a US$1.2-million small business grant that his firm, GigaGen in San Francisco, California, had been awarded just days before by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But Johnson was not able to access the money, nor may he be able to until the deeply divided US Congress agrees on a plan to fund government operations for the fiscal year that began on 1 October.

@NASAVoyager1 and @NASAVoyager2 accounts suspended

This one surprised me. These two very popular twitter accounts have tweeted the progress of one (well, two) of NASA’s great triumphs. Media and on-line accounts report (note the emphasis) that the last tweet of @NASAVoyager2 was,

Due to government shutdown, we will not be posting or responding from this account. Farewell, humans. Sort it out yourselves.

The ‘parent’ @NASAVoyager account is present and telling followers “Sorry, but we won’t be tweeting/responding to replies during the government shutdown. Be back as soon as possible.” but the @NASAVoyager1 and @NASAVoyager2 have been suspended. (Obviously I have no means to verify the reports of the what the last tweet was given that the accounts are suspended. It’s intriguing whatever the full story is. It’s possible the accounts were suspended by NASA for more innocent reasons, with the ‘last tweet’ being an internet rumour, but the suspensions themselves are real and, to me, unexpected.)


Can we say this is nuts?

(Sheer, stark, raving bonkers?)

Footnotes & further reading

Michael Eisen has made a slideshow of the impact. More examples of the impact on science and health can be found at NPR (National Public Radio). A reddit thread, Scientists! Please discuss how the government shutdown will affect you and your work here, has more commentary and examples. More details on grant spending restrictions are available on the Science Careers blog. The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) have offered commentary via their policy blog, Blotter. There are more reports out there.

* A loose thought that occurred to me was if the shutdown persists, researchers looking for work in the USA might look elsewhere anticipating the knock-on effects.

** Followed by this interesting tidbit (the things you learn reading random things on-line…):

A: You guys should be covered under the same policy as the astronauts on the ISS. You’re practically the same distance away =(

B: Actually, we’re much farther. Our current medical director of the USAP is a former astronaut (Scott Parazinsky), and he said that in many ways being in Antarctica is MORE remote than being at the ISS, especially for the South Pole Station.

On the ISS, if there’s an emergency they can jump into the Soyuz and be back in atmosphere in as little as 45 minutes; ideally they’ll give themselves two hours so they can actually chose to land in someplace civilized, but they can do it in 45 minutes.

But at the station I’m currently at, help can be 5+ days away, and at McMurdo or Pole over the winter, help is months away.

Other articles on Code for life:

Is a genome enough? (Not Just DNA #1)

How long do you take to review a research paper?

Bionic ears let the deaf hear

The bosom serpent

Eye sci with my little eye

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