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Policy and funding

Policy and funding

Government shutdown begins to bite US science

10 Jan 2019
Some 10% of registrants at this week’s 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle have been unable to attend due to the government shutdown
Grounded: Some 10% of registrants at this week’s 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle have been unable to attend due to the government shutdown. (Courtesy: CorporateEventImages/Phil McCarten 2017)

A partial shutdown of the US government continues to affect science in the country almost three weeks after it began on 22 December. The shutdown has been caused by disagreements between President Donald Trump and the Democratic party over the administration’s plan to budget funds for building a wall along America’s southern border with Mexico. It has left NASA to lay-off most of its employees, while requiring some, including those involved in functioning space missions and the International Space Station, to work without payment.

The shutdown has also hit this week’s 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Seattle. It had received a total of 3200 registrants, but more than 300 delegates — mostly NASA employees — have been unable to attend. This forced the cancellation of NASA town hall-style meetings at the conference and other programme sessions as well as organized tours of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. The society did, however, live stream all plenary sessions to registrants who could not travel to Seattle as well as allow co-authors of failed attendees to make presentations or stand-ins to produce interactive multimedia posters. The AAS will also explore ways to provide all registrants after the meeting with the contents of cancelled sessions.

It is a true disappointment that hardworking scientists seeking to explore and understand the universe on behalf of the American public and to share their results with their colleagues are basically being prevented from doing so by political impasse

Kevin Marvel

Another meeting hit by the government deadlock is this week’s annual conference of the American Meteorological Society in Phoenix, with very few of the 700 government scientists due to attend being able to do so. “It is a true disappointment that hardworking scientists seeking to explore and understand the universe on behalf of the American public and to share their results with their colleagues are basically being prevented from doing so by political impasse,” says AAS executive officer Kevin Marvel.

Disruption and delay

While the Department of Energy continues to run normally as its financial year 2019 budget had been agreed before the shutdown, other agencies have been severely hit. NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have all run out of funds and are only carrying out the most critical operations.

“Any shutdown of the federal government can disrupt or delay research projects, lead to uncertainty over new research, and reduce researcher access to agency data and infrastructure,” Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, noted in a statement.

At the EPA, the collection of environmental data has been halted, leaving irreplaceable gaps for future researchers and analysts. The NSF, meanwhile, is preparing to cancel meetings to review proposals for funding grants if the shutdown continues. Taking to Twitter, atmospheric scientist Andrew Dressler from Texas A&M University says that he will not accept new graduate students because he has grant proposals pending with NASA and the NSF.

Scientists who lead facilities supported by NASA or the NSF – such as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory – say that while their funding is currently secure, if the shutdown continues then it could disrupt their operations.

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