Stories from the front: oceanographers navigate the government shutdown

As I wrote about on Huffington Post, oceanographic research in America has been hit hard by the government shutdown, with far-reaching and potentially long-term consequences for this important branch of climate science. Here I would like to introduce you to some of the more than thirty scientists who shared their stories with me this week. Their perspectives paint a picture of a field of research struggling to weather a storm, and unsure of its bearings.

Many of the scientists who spoke to me did so on the condition of anonymity. To protect their identities, I have assigned everyone alternate names, randomly chosen from among the stars of every oceanographer's favorite film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. That film is a comedy in which all the characters wear red beanies. The real-world situation, by contrast, is less amusing.

Let's now take a tour through a cross-section of my field. Names have been changed, and possibly genders, but the people and their stories are very real.

'I want to do something important'

"I don't care if you quote me anonymously," one colleague told me, and then joked, "just make me look intelligent." This colleague, who we will call Owen, has not been furloughed. But Owen works at a government laboratory that is currently shut down, making his research difficult. "About every half-hour I feel like there's something I need from the office," he says, such as a scientific paper he can't access from his home computer. However such inconveniences are relatively minor compared with a possible setback in a field experiment.

Owen has spent months coordinating the instrumentation for an upcoming study. The study will focus on a region of the ocean that is known to play an important role in climate. "I'm excited because we'll be able to make some new measurements," he says, but that study is now in jeopardy. On account of the shutdown, the availability of the ship that Owen was counting on for his study is now uncertain, with the scheduled cruise date rapidly approaching.

Unfortunately such uncertainty is part of a pattern. Speaking of the past few years, Owen says, "This is not the first fire drill we've had. Every three months or every six months, there's been the threat of a shutdown or a furlough. It's very stressful." And it's demoralizing in ways that are not obvious from the outside. "For the media, the story ends if there is not a shutdown, but for us, for the whole month before the shutdown, we need to make all these contingency plans, what happens if we can't do X, Y, and Z," he explains. This takes its toll. "It's just a big waste of productivity and emotional energy to have to do that exercise on a regular basis."

Owen expressed frustration about the difficulty in communicating the importance of his work to the public. "It's hard to convince the public of the importance of the work that we're doing, but we all want to do work that benefits society, and we all feel very passionate about it," he says. "All of the work that I do has some connection to climate or weather, and it's all directed to understanding the planet that we live on."

The job uncertainty he's experienced over the past few years sends an unintentional message. "I feel that my job is really not valued by the government, either," says Owen. Of course, everyone wants to feel valued in their work, but this need is perhaps particularly important to scientists, who are often motivated by factors other than financial gain. "I don't work because I want to get paid," says Owen, "I work because I want to do something important."

But becoming accustomed to working under stress has its advantages, and so Owen is handling the current shutdown with a remarkably even keel. "I'm not more outraged about the shutdown, because I'm already so outraged in general about the lack of attention for climate research in this country," he says. "I've been inoculated."

Falling down on commitments

Another colleague, let's call him Bill, is responsible for taking care of a major chunk of oceanographic data, data that are critical to the climate models that predict the future of the planet, and on which the International Panel on Climate Change assessments are based. "I should have 30 people working for me," he writes, describing the magnitude of his responsibilities. "Instead I have six." Bill is a federal employee, and right now, he tells me, 97% of the 110 workers at his institute are furloughed.

As a direct consequence of the shutdown, it is now doubtful that the United States will be able to uphold international commitments that Bill's group is accountable for. Without going into details, this jeopardizes an important component of our climate observing system that is due for replacement in the very near future. "I feel embarrassed on behalf of our nation," he says. "We are falling down on all kinds of commitments that we make with other countries, and this is just one very small example. " When I asked him for specifics to back up this statement, he provided me with an astonishing laundry list of global consequences large and small that could be a separate story in its own right.

This same sentiment was echoed to me from the other side. An international program coordinator in Europe wrote to me of his frustrations in not being able to reach US scientists who are currently furloughed. "With all this uncertainty and these last minute decisions due to sequestration in recent months, and more recently the furlough," he writes, "it has been increasingly difficult to engage with US colleagues in planning processes, which is frustrating for both them and for us."

In other words, the budgetary difficulties impacting science in America have sent ripples through the international climate community. Questions are emerging regarding the ability of our country to follow through on commitments we have made in the shared responsibility of monitoring the earth's climate.

Potential for life and property at risk

As I was working on this piece, I was contacted by Willem, an employee at a federal oceanographic laboratory that is currently shut down. He wanted to tell me about concerns regarding a dataset produced by his group that, in his words, "is critical to safeguard life and property," and he wanted to be anonymous. This dataset is used by "all shipping lines and companies working at sea," he said, and in particular by oil exploration companies in the Gulf of Mexico, "to monitor weather, ocean conditions, and so forth." Data products are continuing to update automatically during the shutdown, but without the human expertise that is essential to catch potential problems.

"The data flow is not smooth," he explains. "We always need personnel to fix bugs, quality control the data, etc." None of this can occur during the shutdown. "If something happens," he says, "scientists are not allowed to fix it because they are not allowed into the building." Willem is concerned that this could have consequences for severe weather prediction if a problem should arise. "The worst case scenario is that the weather service will not be able to count on this data if something happens to the data flow," he writes. "Maybe even during a hurricane."

A desperate situation

Anjelica is a professor of oceanography at a university who, among other things, is the well-regarded leader of a very large and collaborative oceanographic research project. "This is perhaps the most desperate situation so far" that she has seen in her sixteen-year career, she tells me. "In an era when lawmakers are talking about six week bridge budgets, how are we supposed to plan scientific programs, let alone plan any ambitious ones?"

She is concerned about the long-term consequences for the field. "I do not see how we can honestly try to recruit students into our field under these circumstances," she writes. But more significant than the shutdown is the ongoing long-term decline in federal funding for oceanographic research, which she likens to a slow-motion catastrophe that has not yet made its impact. "It is going to be a long wait, initially slow but persistent once it starts hitting. Like a tsunami, it will just keep coming, and it will be too late to fix things at that point."

The mysteries of the ocean

Another colleague—let's call her Cate—is in charge of the program that maintains one of the most important datasets monitoring the state of the global ocean currents. Cate loves her work. "It's a combination of scientific interest and curiosity, and the fact that I love the ocean," she says. "I love the mysteries of the ocean, and I think there's a lot to learn about it."

At a recent meeting I attended, a scientist in the audience stood up after Cate gave a talk, and said, "I just want to say that I really appreciate the work you are doing for the community." I was startled by this; comments after talks rarely express such gratitude. You come to expect things more along the lines of, "Aha! It seems you are unfamiliar with the pioneering work of Banzai and Lizardo in the 1980's." But Cate is seen as a team player, as well as a careful scientist. I think many of my colleagues would agree with me that Cate is indispensable.

Cate is currently furloughed. As a federal worker, she has also been though a lot in the past few years, and the stress and frustration of working in an atmosphere of uncertainty has taken its toll. Yesterday, she told me, "If there were other ways to do scientific research in this country, not dependent on government funding, I would be looking into these right now."

I asked Cate if under these circumstances, she was worried that researchers may even consider leaving the country. "I have to stay here because my husband's job is here, so it would not be very easy to just pick up and move," she says. "But if I were single, absolutely, I would be thinking of going to Europe right now."

A case study in "brain drain"

Wes is the head of the meteorology and oceanography section at the University of Oslo. He was comfortable with me using his real name, but also he felt "Wes" had a nice ring to it. He has published dozens of papers in oceanography, with a focus on fundamental aspects of ocean physics, and it's fair to say that he is very well regarded in the field. Wes is an American. Originally from Maine, Wes has lived in Norway for the past eleven years. While it took some adjustment getting used to living in a new culture, he says he's happy where he is now.

After spending time in Europe for post-doctoral research, Wes returned to the States, intending to stay in "soft-money" research at the esteemed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. To be on "soft money" means that a researcher does not have a permanent source of income, but rather is accountable for raising his or her own salary from federal grants. Insecure as that sounds, it is a common way of life for oceanographers.

But for Wes, it didn't work out. "I had 7 or 8 proposal rejected in 3 years," Wes tells me. "I wasn't sleeping at night, I was so stressed out." Eventually, he could no longer function as a scientist. He asks, "How can you think like that?" After that experience, he says, he was ready to move anywhere. Six months after relocating to Norway, he found himself fully funded in a research career, due to the higher success rates for proposals at that time. He says the situation was much more stable and relaxed, and he was able to focus on his research again.

From his perspective, the shutdown just continues a long trend that is headed in the wrong direction. Funding success rates plummeted in the 90's, he tells me, just as he was coming onto the scene. Like others I spoke to, he sees a damaging long-term effect on science. "Creativity-driven science is suffering," he says. "It's becoming less and less valued," and, he claims, it's harder and harder for his colleagues back home to focus on their work in an era of increasing scarcity.

For Wes, the "brain drain" of scientists to other countries is a very real issue. It's the story of his career. Reflecting on the deteriorating state of funding in the US, Wes told me one of his friends had recently referred to him as the "canary in the coal mine." "Or like the first rat off a sinking ship?" I offered. "Yes," he agreed with a laugh, "that would be another way to say it."

Though he's happy in Norway, Wes did not at all want to leave the States. "I would absolutely have stayed at Woods Hole if I had been able to," Wes tells me. "It was a fantastic environment. I would never have left. I wanted to stay in America."

'I certainly wouldn't recommend for anyone to enter federal service'

Back in the US, Bill points out that the shutdown has had a big impact on the morale of government scientists. "Morale is very low," he says. "This shutdown is incredibly dampening." In such a situation, "brain drain" is a real possibility. "We're in danger of losing a lot of talented people, because it's the talented people who are going to say, 'I have other opportunities.'"

It is easy to imagine that this poses risks for the future of federally-funded scientific research in America. "I certainly wouldn't recommend for anyone bright and capable to enter federal service," says Bill. "I'm even looking around for other positions." What are some options? "I've thought about leaving the country, or leaving the field," he tells me. "I just don't have any offers in hand yet."

After hearing these and other stories, I found myself at the conclusion that I expressed in a related piece, and that a number of colleagues told me echoes their own sentiment: that the shutdown threatens to scuttle US oceanographic research.