Science takes a hit in Day 13 of the GOP's government shutdown

shut science illustration by Perrin Ireland.jpg

“I'm gettin' sick and tired of the same ole bull”
“Fool About You”—Hank Williams

Republicans keep saying they really didn’t want to shut the government down. As their approval ratings plummet, they keep trying to shift the blame to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or the Democrats in general, or President Obama. But now in the second weekend of the shutdown, poll after poll is showing that the public, like Hank, is getting tired of this blame-shifting and excuse-making. Maybe that’s why, finally, there has been some talk of coming to a deal.

Even if a deal is reached in the next few days, it won’t come soon enough for all of us who feel the impact of the shutdown.  Besides the politics, it’s been a gloomy weekend weather-wise here in Washington, so I thought I’d brighten the day with a colorful illustration by my colleague, Perrin Ireland, even though it tells a discouraging story about the shutdown’s corrosive impact on federal scientists. These are the ones who do much of the basic research, looking into fundamental physical, chemical and biological processes, work that doesn’t have an immediate commercial or medical application, but has a big payoff down the road.

 Let’s hope the Republicans in Congress stop posturing, do their job, pass a clean budget and get Americans back to work.

The shutdown’s “insidious” impact on science

Federally funded scientists – most science at universities is funded at least in part by the federal government -- have been hit particularly hard by the shutdown, whether they are trying to find a cure for cancer or doing research on ways to protect our environment. The National Institutes of Health isn’t enrolling any new patients in its research protocols, an entire research season near the South Pole is at risk, and even a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, David Wineland of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado, has been furloughed. (His work may eventually lead to a super-powerful “quantum computer.”)

The prestigious science journal Nature this week said in an editorial, “The damage being done to science — the slow business of meticulous data gathering — is not as immediately apparent as in other arenas. But it is insidious. A missed moment in a data campaign may not reveal its importance until much later. A talented scientist, fed up with budget vagaries, might seek greener pastures.”

My colleague Perrin Ireland, a science communicator, has been collecting scientists’ stories and created the accompanying illustration. One of the scientists she talked to, Caitlin MacKenzie, had spent weeks before the shutdown setting up an elaborate planting inside Maine’s Acadia National Park—including 270 trees—to study the effect of climate change on plants. She hired a local college student to water the new transplants four times a week until the first hard frost.  On the day before the shutdown, he watered the plants for the first time. The next day, the government shut down and the park was locked, blocking access to the gardens and the new, vulnerable transplants. MacKenzie worries about the survival of the young trees without regular watering.  "I could lose an entire field season if these plants do not survive,” she said. “Almost all of the work that the volunteers and I poured into this project over the two weeks in September will be erased."

You can read more of Perrin’s scientist stories on her blog:

And my previous blogs about the government shutdown threats are here:

illustration credit: Perrin Ireland, NRDC.