I’ve been talking myself into and out of writing this post since the 12th day of the government shutdown. It temporarily ended after a record breaking 35 days. My delay has partly to do with procrastination (because of course), but also was impossible to predict when the legislature would actually mobilize to open the government, then prevent the next one. The results were that the negotiations went down to the wire, again, (which is incredibly disruptive and harrowing for government scientists) and, bewilderingly, there is increased funding for a select few science-related activities in the continuing resolution… along with a national emergency.
There’s an emergency all right, but it’s not a groundswell of immigrants clambering across bulldozed butterfly sanctuaries in southern Texas. It’s the negligent if not disdainful regard for the role of basic research in government agencies and the role of science in informing policy decisions by the very leaders appointed to uphold the missions of those agencies. This “partial” shutdown affected only about 25% of the government, but disproportionately affected science agencies such as the Department of the Interior that houses the USGS, the National Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management; the Department of Commerce that houses NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service; The Department of Agriculture, the EPA, and of course, the National Science Foundation. Noticeably absent from the list of science agencies impacted were the CDC and the NIH – those focused on human health. Others that predict where earthquakes and hurricanes will hit and if volcanos will erupt weren’t funded, but were deemed essential and so worked without pay through the furlough. But those that work on the natural world outside of human health? Those that work at the world class Smithsonian museums or Water Science Centers and study invertebrates, early hominid evolution, or fish disease and taxonomy? Not funded and not essential. However, it is inherently valuable and worthwhile to study our natural world. Even if we can’t grind it up and cure cancer with it. I worry about the fate of this basic research.
Even though the second 2019 shutdown has been averted, I am still compelled to write this because I was a contractor for one year and a temporary government scientist for seven years. Though I am no longer a federal worker, I took this last shutdown rather personally. I missed being one of those furloughed workers by two months, though I did experience the 15 day shutdown in 2013. I know what it feels like to an extent – to file for unemployment even though you HAVE a job, to be uncomfortable with charity, again, because you have a job and will likely to get paid eventually, to not be able to work when you want to work, to feel completely marginalized. And of course, if I had remained a contractor, doing the same work, I would not have been compensated (and it’s not looking good for them this time around either). Imagine going to work knowing your coworkers just got back pay for a month of furlough and you didn’t. For the same work. IMAGINE. THAT. As a PI, imagine being banned from work in the crucial planning time of extensive field seasons. How about if you have expensive equipment that’s supposed to be formally shutdown when it’s idle. Do you fire it up in the three weeks of reprieve, or delay experiments until you know there won’t be another shutdown? Just like a car, starting and stopping some lab equipment can be more costly than having them run. Furthermore, with a month of standing idle in refrigerators and freezers, I imagine there was a purge of expired reagents upon the return to work, but also a hesitation of ordering more until the future looked more stable. So you have to make a choice to sit on your hands and delay for three weeks or scramble like mad in the window you know you have. Thankfully, now our governmental colleagues will be able to exhale and plan for the future (up until September) after the major disruption in productivity.
Cherry picking to keep some governmental parts functioning and other parts shuttered is damaging to natural science research, because that’s the part that we’ve historically invested in for the long game. And it’s becoming painfully obvious how myopic and forgetful our society is. Apparently, we need waves of small pox and measles to move through our ranks every decade or so to remind us as a whole that vaccines work really, really well. We need to strip our parks and monuments of their employees and stewards to grasp that, without them, we are savages that cannot be trusted to act like mindful parts of a larger community. Also, because the detrimental effects of marginalizing government science won’t be immediately felt by most US citizens, future games of chicken could extend for months. What catalyzed the temporary reopening was the air traffic controllers flexing at La Guardia airport, thereby causing a ripple of delayed and cancelled flights throughout the US. The government was reopened the same day. Here I was, entertaining the notion that the government may be shut down for MONTHS, but all it took was one day of flight disruption. Do government scientists hold that same sway? HAHAHAHA! What if this happens again, only this time TSA and air traffic controllers have the funding and are not furloughed?
If you are reading this, you probably have a love of science and if you have kids, it’s going to permeate in some volume to them – from the books you read them, to what tv programs you watch, what museums you drag them to, the summer camp, the backyard activities, what you talk about while cooking dinner. They will be exposed. And some of them will be inspired to consider being a person in STEM when they grow up. It’s what we encourage in kids, right? An astronaut! A marine biologist! How are they going to do that? Why would they want to? What is this nonsense doing to the very foundations of science in the US?
To add insult to injury, the rollcall of the leadership that scientists faced upon return was and is, especially bleak. Our EPA colleagues returned to Andrew Wheeler, the ex-lobbyist for fossil fuel and energy companies who has been a critic of limiting greenhouse gases. Over at the Department of the Interior, after the recent resignation of Ryan Zinke as Secretary, the former oil lobbyist ( and endangered delta smelt nemesis) David Bernhardt has been appointed to succeed him (as an aside, when I was a Department of the Interior employee, I was not allowed to hold stocks in oil, gas, or mining companies. You know, conflict of interest.). And who could forget the champion of the working class, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, whose net worth is $700 million, expressing befuddlement at unpaid government workers resorting to food banks when they could simply apply for loans.
I feel like I should end this with a call to action or some concrete solutions. I don’t have those. I’m still feeling panicked, helpless, and enraged. It is truly unfortunate that this kneecapping of government scientists came at a pivotal time when our research and policy should be strongest as a nation. Now, when the world is looking for strong, swift innovations to combat a truly international state of emergency: CLIMATE CHANGE. If I had suggestions they would be to elect people to ALL tiers of government (pay attention to local elections too!) that are from diverse backgrounds and science backgrounds – people who have the guts to draft a document like the New Green Deal and then TALK about it, people who won’t bring a snowball into the Senate as proof global warming isn’t real, is a good start. Vote for representatives who talk about science and prioritize climate change in their platforms. And crucially, don’t forget about your federal government colleagues (AND CONTRACTORS) and give them a voice when they are silenced next time. MAGA.