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With Key Government Agencies Shut Down, Science Sputters

Marine biologist Ari Friedlaender tags whales as part of his research on humpback whales in the Antarctic.
Alison Stimpert/NMFS PERMIT 808-1735
Marine biologist Ari Friedlaender tags whales as part of his research on humpback whales in the Antarctic.

Big, important scientific breakthroughs are built of small, incremental experiments. And the partial government shutdown is already interfering with some of that research.

Scientists often depend on the government for grant funding, expertise and — in some cases — even regulatory approval. With the shutdown, some researchers are missing those key elements of scientific collaboration. Here's how some scientists say the shutdown is affecting their work.

Ari Friedlaender, a marine biologist with University of California, Santa Cruz, writes, "Because of the shutdown we were not able to get our permits completed and signed so we are hamstrung from collecting some critical data and deploying tags on whales to study their behavior and population structure."

The research, he says, involves placing motion-sensing tags on humpback whales in the Antarctic "that measure their underwater behavior and feeding rates and allow us to understand how these animals behave and are affected by environmental change and how these changes might put them into competition with other krill predators like penguins in certain areas."

Friedlaender says he was hoping to get the permits before heading out into the field. "Since [humpback] whales are federally protected, we require a handful of permits to do research with them and with the shut down the folks in the permit office simply couldn't get things done for us." Now, he says, he can't communicate with people at the National Science Foundation he needs to. "We have people in the field that can't do what we intended to do," he says. "Very sad and debilitating feeling for sure."

Update, 4:45 p.m., ET: Since publication, Friedlaender has received word through an independent contractor that his whale research permits have been approved and his team can resume their work immediately. "I already called the field teams and passed on the good news" he says. He's especially grateful to the contractors who helped with permitting. It shows, he says, "with enough people working hard among the chaos that things are getting done."

Tuesday Simmons, a graduate student in microbiology at the University of California, Berkeley, writes, "I'm a grad student at Berkeley, but my PI [principal investigator] works for the USDA (like several PIs in my department). While the grad students continue to work, it is difficult for us without our advisers here." She says this affects her in two primary ways. "I am trying to complete a manuscript with my adviser and I need to meet with him to discuss figures and text edits," Simmons says. And she says she is "trying to plan a new experiment where I'm adding synthetic microbial communities to sorghum plants, and I need to iron out the details with him before starting the experiment."

Simmons points out that it's hard to hit the pause button on plant research. "The plants continue to grow and need care (such as water and maintained growth chambers). During this time, many plants are dying, time points for experiments aren't being collected, and plants are maturing without people to collect their seeds. This can set experiments back weeks, months or, in some cases, up to a year. Honestly, the labs with grad students are the lucky ones, because we're allowed in to take care of plants."

Andrew Leifer, a physicist at Princeton, says, "I'm a newer assistant professor and I've been trying hard to land my first federal grant, which is crucial for funding my research into how the neurons in a worm's brain generate its behavior."

In mid-December, he was on the cusp of hearing whether he was about to receive a grant from the NSF. He says they were going to let him know in the new year.

"And then the shutdown happened and so for the past three weeks I have been anxiously waiting to hear if my research will get funded," Leifer says. "It is my understanding that NSF employees are barred from even checking their email and are not allowed to discuss any NSF related business. So I will just wait. But not knowing impedes my ability to plan or to hire people, or even knowing whether I should be trying to recruit additional grad students. Admittedly, this is minor in the scheme of things, but I think it illustrates just how pervasive the negative consequences of the shutdown are for science, and it will only get worse with time."

Alison Stimpert, a marine biologist with California State University, writes, "Even though I am continuing to work, many of my collaborators (USGS, NOAA) are furloughed and projects we are working on together cannot move forward." She says that means "project planning meetings are being delayed, as well as permit applications for upcoming work."

Stimpert studies bioacoustics — "acoustic behavior and effects of noise on marine species," she explains — in waters off of California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Alaska and Antarctica. She says that in some cases, the shutdown means she may have to reorganize some travel or wait to start a phase of research until collaborators can work. In other areas, it might have more serious implications: "We might miss an opportunity to deploy an instrument, which makes us miss collecting an entire season of data." And Stimpert says that if she or her collaborators have future federal funding delays, it could mean that "I can't purchase an instrument that I need, but might (and I am not alone in this) mean my other funding runs out and I can no longer fund my position, making me lose my benefits."

Christopher Horvat, a climate scientist at Brown University, tells NPR, "I'm a postdoc, and while I am in a lucky position to have a reasonably-paying fellowship, the loss of support sucks away my ability to continue research." His funding comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via a contractor, and NOAA is closed during the shutdown.

"Already, the high relative cost of travel for research my means I must float significant amounts of money relative to my salary on credit cards," he says. "With the shutdown, reimbursements for research and travel expenditures are not being paid."

Horvat researches the Arctic climate system --"aspects of its sea ice, ocean and ecology emerging as a result of the last century of rapid change, like massive under-ice phytoplankton blooms or rapid sea ice breakup events. I also do kayak-based field research in the high Arctic where we use drones to map changes to the sea ice in Arctic waterways."

He says his employer has provided two options: "(1) be furloughed, or (2) have subsequent pay periods at half our typical rates, with the hope that at the conclusion of the shutdown we will get back pay accounting for the drop in pay.

"As a contractor, in the case of a furlough I would not be paid for the time I did not work and so I would likely go on unemployment. I do not know how long option (2) will last, but I assume it is for at least the next few weeks before a forced furlough happens. While earning half rates seems like the best option, unemployment would pay a similar wage and have more certainty, while prolonging my appointment."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.
Gisele Grayson
Gisele Grayson is a deputy editor on NPR's science desk. She edits stories about climate, the environment, space, and about basic research in biology and physics.
Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.