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Patients turned away, SpaceX delays: here’s how the government shutdown hits science

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At least the CDC will still track the flu

Zika vaccine trial at NIH Photo by Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

As Congress scrambles to reach a budget deal, the federal government is still shut down. That means hundreds of thousands of federal employees will not be returning to work this week — including employees for the national agencies that deal with science, like the National Institutes of Health or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since we don’t know how long the shutdown will last, it’s impossible to say how far-ranging its effects will be. But we can look to the agencies’ contingency plans and the aftermath of the 2013 federal shutdown, which lasted 16 days, for clues.

Here is what the government shutdown will mean for these science agencies:

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Patients currently enrolled in NIH studies — for instance, patients in hospitals right now — will still be taken care of, but the institute will not bring on any new patients. During the 2013 shutdown, the agency had to turn away 200 patients each week, including 30 children. Patients applying for NIH studies are often extremely sick, because they’re willing to take a risk on an experimental treatment.

The NIH will also stop processing grants and put employees on leave. In 2013, 80 percent of its employees were put on leave, and the institute rescheduled the review of nearly 14,000 grant applications. Dr. Antony Fauci, who is director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told The Associated Press last week that scientists were in a “scramble” and concerned about their experiments. “From a practical standpoint, when you’re dealing with science you have experiments that have been going on for months, if not years, and all of a sudden you have to stop,” he said. Some scientists have reported needing to reroute fly food delivery to their homes. Additionally, PubMed, an academic database primarily of life science papers, is no longer up to date.

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

The CDC will place about 60 percent of its staff on leave, according to The Washington Post. Thankfully, flu tracking will continue, as it has been deemed “essential” by the Department of Health and Human Services. (This year’s flu season has been particularly bad, and the flu-tracking system was shut down in 2013.) The staff will continue supporting the hurricane response efforts, according to a HHS contingency plan. But most of its disease prevention and treatment programs would lapse, and it will take longer to track outbreaks.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has said that the agency will operate normally this week even if the government shuts down. “At this time EPA has sufficient resources to remain open for a limited amount of time in the event of a government shutdown,” he wrote in an email. It is unclear how long the agency can continue operating if the shutdown continues, but an administration official told The Washington Post that it’s possible the agency could tap into cash reserves. The EPA does have a contingency plan, but EPA spokesperson Jahan Wilcox told The Hill that the plan is outdated and doesn’t necessarily reflect its plans.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

About 54 percent of NOAA’s 11,400 employees are being asked to stay home during the government shutdown, interrupting the operation of research vessels, for instance. Most of the “excepted” employees are those working for the National Weather Service, which makes weather forecasts needed for air travel, military operations, and to protect the public. But the reduced staffing puts a strain on the workforce that’s still required to go to work without pay. And if equipment like weather instruments or the computers that spit out forecasts break, it could take longer to repair them. “There’s all kinds of additional stress on the forecasters at this time,” Bill Hooke, director of American Meteorological Society Policy Program, tells The Verge.

NASA

Essential personnel that operate satellites and keep astronauts safe on the International Space Station keep working during a government shutdown. But longer-term projects, like preparations on the James Webb Space Telescope, may come to halt, according to Nature. Commercial spaceflight companies are also being affected by the shutdown: SpaceX, for instance, won’t be able to test fire its new Falcon Heavy rocket, because it needs support from the US Air Force, which oversees launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. That creates further delays for SpaceX, which was planning to launch the Falcon Heavy for the first time at the end of January.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

At the FDA, 45 percent of employees will go on leave. The agency will end most of its safety activities, covering areas such as food safety, cosmetics safety inspections, and compliance.

National Park Service (NPS)

After the closure of national parks and monuments caused public outrage during the 2013 shutdown, the Trump administration decided to keep national parks largely open this time. The parks, however, will have limited staffing, and that means visitor centers, campgrounds, and full-service bathrooms will be closed, according to The Washington Post. The decision to keep parks open has been criticized: because many park rangers won’t be on the job, visitors will have to visit the parks at their own risk. “The capacity for rescue if a visitor gets into an accident is going to be limited,” Bill Wade, who worked for the NPS for more than 30 years, told The New Republic. “There might be some EMTs and law enforcement around, but if there’s a problem that needs more people, those people aren’t going to be available.”

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

Nearly 90 percent of all personnel in the department are considered “essential” and will continue to work during the shutdown, a spokesperson for the DHS wrote in an email to The Verge. At FEMA specifically, the one-call response employees, whose salaries are funded from the Disaster Relief Fund and not the government budget, will work their regular schedules, according to a FEMA official. The US Army Corps of Engineers will continue emergency response work to protect life and property, and will still operate its hydropower plants and other flood control projects.

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy is least affected by the shutdown, in part because 16 of its 17 laboratories are run by independent contractors and not government employees. All employees are returning to work this week as usual, and labs will stay open until the Department of Energy spends its cash reserve. “Bottom line: the Department of Energy will be open for business on Monday,” spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes told Nature. There is no information on how long these reserves might last, however.

The problem with government shutdowns is not just the temporary closure of government labs and the huge waste of money. (In 2013, the shutdown cost the US economy $24 billion.) In the long run, it could hurt the government’s ability to attract smart and ambitious researchers. “My guess is that over time, the best and brightest simply will not consider government service as highly as they would have,” Dave Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State, tells The Verge. Titley was talking about NWS employees specifically, but the same risk applies across all government agencies. “This is a sort of longer term-impact.”