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U.S. shutdown begins: ‘It’s disheartening, … discouraging, … deflating’

The U.S. government today began the process of partially shutting down after President Donald Trump and lawmakers in Congress could not agree on a short-term funding deal. At the center of the dispute is Trump’s demand for $5 billion to begin building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, as he promised during his presidential campaign. Democrats and some Republicans in Congress oppose that demand, and the parties are trying to negotiate a resolution.

The shutdown will not directly affect a number of major science agencies because they are already fully funded under spending bills signed by Trump. Those protected agencies include the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the departments of energy and defense.

But the shutdown will scramble operations at a number of other agencies that fund or conduct research. That list includes the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the U.S. Geological Survey, the Agricultural Research Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Forest Service. Overall, agencies will be forced to furlough about 380,000 employees under shutdown plans they have adopted. (An additional 420,000 “essential” employees involved in critical activities—such as air traffic control and military missions, or keeping spacecraft flying and laboratory animals alive —will be required to work without pay.)

Past shutdowns have proved costly and disruptive (this is the third this year alone). As a result, science groups are expressing alarm. “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 officer of AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider), said in a statement.

Some lawmakers are also worried. “I want to point out that our federal science agencies have a long history of working hard on research and education programs that return huge payoffs to the American people. Those agencies are basically closed for business today,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who will become chair of the House of Representatives science panel next month. “As I’ve noted in previous shutdowns, as our competitors in other countries surge ahead in their RD investments, we have basically shut down a large chunk of our federal science and technology enterprise. Shutting down the government is an embarrassment and the president should not be ‘proud’ of it.” 

It is not yet clear how long this shutdown might last, although Trump has said it could be a “very long time.” Agencies are preparing for the worst. Here’s a taste of what they might face:

Smithsonian Institution: ‘It’s disheartening’

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) will use remaining funds from budgets that Congress has already approved to keep operating through New Year’s Day, it said in a statement. Its popular public museums will be open, except for a traditional Christmas Day closure. And the institution’s broad array of research conducted by some 500 staff scientistsincluding studies in ecology, archeology, and paleontologywill have a week’s reprieve too.

After that, says Rick Potts, a paleoanthropologist who directs the Human Origins Project at the SI’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C., the shutdown will leave him “unable to lead writing and discussions of manuscripts involving several dozen co-authors across the U.S. and other countries. … We are not allowed to use our Smithsonian/government email accounts during a shutdown, which prevents communications that are at the heart of collaborative science.”

Another NMNH scientist who asked not to be identified spent Friday afternoon scrambling to prepare for a long-planned scientific expedition abroad for which they mightor might notbe granted permission to leave as planned on 29 December. 

“It’s disheartening, it’s discouraging, it’s deflating. All those d-words,” they said as they surveyed the piles of satellite maps, sample bags, and notebooks they were planning to cart home yesterday, in case they got the go-ahead. This person also worries about early career colleagues who will be counting on their guidance during the expedition.

“If I get on the plane next Saturday and am in my field area by the 1st of January and there’s a complete shutdown, I will have to come back. I will feel like I am not fulfilling my responsibility to the science that I am trying to do and especially to my colleagues.”  Meredith Wadman

NASA: High profile mission could go dark

Perhaps no agency will have a higher percentage of its workforce furloughed than NASA, where some 90% of its 17,586 workers would be sent home, according to a plan released last week. Exceptions are made for supporting missions in progress, such as the International Space Station and its astronauts, along with operations of, for example, essential satellite and robotic missions.

If the shutdown lingers through the new year, it could complicate what was meant to be a highlight for the agency: the New Horizons spacecraft’s first flybyon New Years’ Dayof an original resident of the Kuiper belt, the far-flung flotilla of planetary grist on the edge of the solar system. The New Horizon’s team, which is run by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Maryland, will continue to work. So will the engineers behind NASA’s Deep Space Network, the massive radio antennas that enable communication with the space agency’s robotic fleet. But a shutdown could shutter NASA’s vaunted publicity machine. Twitter accounts could close. Press releases would remain drafts. Even the agency’s TV channel would go dark.

Beyond the potential of such a media fumble, a shutdown that dragged into 2019 could start to cause serious delays for missions in development. The Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, is technically a NASA contractor, so work could likely continue on its $2.5 billion Mars 2020 rover, which must hit a narrow launch window. But should the mission hit a point where the approval or review of a NASA employee is needed, all work would then stop.

A similar story could play out for the delayed James Webb Space Telescope, currently in the hands of contractors for testing. And even NASA’s return to human spaceflight, via the “commercial crew” vehicles developed by Boeing and SpaceX, could be postponed, including an uncrewed launch of SpaceX’s Dragon planned for next month from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. — Paul Voosen

NSF: ‘Disruption in the grantmaking process’

“There will definitely be a disruption in the grantmaking process,” says Amanda Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs in Alexandria, Virginia. It also means scientists and university administrators won’t be able to talk with NSF program managers if any questions arise about NSF-funded research. But NSF has no in-house labs, Greenwell noted, and the contractors that run major NSF-funded facilities such as observatories and research vessels have enough money in their accounts to weather a short-term shutdown. Jeffrey Mervis

USDA: Skeleton crews

According to a shutdown plan posted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), most activities would halt at its Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the in-house research agency, and at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which houses the agency’s competitive grants program.

And many agencies will have just skeleton crews because of furloughs. Just four of the 399 NIFA staff would continue to work, another USDA document indicates, and just about 18% of ARS’s staff of 6285 would be exempt from the shutdown—including “senior leaders” and those involved in “the protection of research property and data where significant damage could result if unattended for any period of time.” — Kelly Servick

NIST: Empty labs

With campuses in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Boulder, Colorado, NIST employs some 2900 scientists, engineers, administrators, and support staff. The agency runs six laboratories for advancing measurement science and standards to help U.S. companies. Most will be furloughed, but more than 500 staff members are expected to stay on part- or full-time to oversee proper shutdown of equipment ranging from a cold neutron source to nanofabrication facility, as well as ensure the safety of vital equipment and buildings. —​Robert Service

NOAA: Port in a storm? 

The agency will continue to run a collection of essential long-term data about the oceans and atmosphere and other field data. Fortuitously, all the agency’s vessels are in port for scheduled winter maintenance, a NOAA official said. —​Jeffrey Brainard