A perspective on the impact of the shutdown on scientific research

Dear friends,

I'm sure some of you have been significantly impacted by the shutdown. 800,000 is a lot of people. I am not personally affected. But many of my colleagues are, and I think you should know about this because they play an important part in our society.

Turns out I work, indirectly, for the Federal Government. I'm a researcher studying ocean physics. My job is to try to understand how the ocean works as a part of the climate system. My funding comes from the National Science Foundation, which means I essentially work for you, the American people, as do many others in my field of research. Thank you for your support.

Because of the shutdown, a lot of people I know are currently out of work. NASA is 97% shut down. So that means many of the people responsible for things like the Mars Rover, the Hubble telescope, the space shuttle, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, are sitting at home wondering when they can come back to work.

This includes people I had the chance to meet and work with during my time working on the Aquarius satellite, which monitors the salinity of the earth's oceans from space. If you think that sounds difficult, it is. It was a major technological breakthrough that took thirty years to realize. My job was to write the code to map the data, a small part of a very large effort.

These NASA missions are all incredibly challenging and take hard work, dedication, and ingenuity from hundreds or thousands of people. That's why the space program has been a source of national pride since the 1960's. Many of you remember Neil Armstrong's moon landing in 1969, and if not then your parents or grandparents do. It was a really big deal.

Imagine the following headlines side by side:

          Men walk on moon; 17,400 NASA employees sent home

These are two real headlines from July 21, 1969, and Monday, October 1, 2013. In fact, Monday was NASA's 55th birthday, which you would think would be a cause for celebration of the amazing legacy of the United States space program.

NASA satellites have revolutionized our ability to study the earth's climate and monitor weather systems. Also, there is an American flag on the moon. I am proud of that and I don't believe that the scientists, engineers, and staff who are responsible for this deserve to be facing uncertainty about where their next paycheck will be coming from due to a budgetary squabble.

The impact of the shutdown also affects another scientific agency that you may be less familiar with. NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce, is over 50% shut down as well. This includes near-complete closures of two major research institutes, the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle. This scientific agency is responsible for monitoring and understanding the state of the ocean and atmosphere. People at this agency are involved in activities such as:

  • Understanding and predicting hurricane behavior
  • Tracking sea level changes and storm surges
  • Studying how the ocean currents modify weather and climate
  • Understanding and forecasting extreme weather events

Is this line of work essential? Well, what's essential? We need to eat and therefore to move food from point A to point B, and that's about it.

If you think these activities are inessential, I would encourage you to spend some time reading about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. This occurred in an era before satellite monitoring of weather, and before our current understanding of how hurricanes function and evolve. With no warning mechanisms in place, Galveston was hit with a Category 4 hurricane. The city was quite literally wiped off the map. About 8,000–12,000 people died in what remains the deadliest disaster in United States history.

Imagine what would have happened with Hurricane Katrina, a powerful hurricane striking a much more heavily populated area than Galveston was a century ago, if we had no advance warning. This is a world in which we remove publicly-funded satellites and publicly-funded severe weather research. While there were many failures in the response to Hurricane Katrina, the National Weather Service performed its role admirably. The National Weather Service's strongly worded advance warning bulletin for Hurricane Katrina is estimated to have saved thousands of lives. Is that essential?

During the current shutdown, the National Weather Services forecasts remain operational, including severe weather prediction. However, many of the people behind the scenes who developed the knowledge and technology upon which that prediction is based are "not essential". Incidentally, there is a currently a tropical storm forming in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile scientists who contributed to our understanding of how these storms evolve, and what paths they will take, are sitting at home, wondering about their own paths.

The shutdown has also closed the National Science Foundation, which funds the bulk of scientific research in this country, including my research on ocean currents. The NSF is unable to process any payments during the shutdown, but I am fortunate enough to work for a research company that has sufficient resources to keep paying me. Let me clarify: individual institutions have to cover for the National Science Foundation of the United States of America, which cannot currently keep financial promises that it has made in writing. To scientists. Because we are not essential.

This also means that the program managers and staff of the NSF—the people responsible for funding and cultivating scientific research in America—are themselves out of work, with 85% of 2000 employees now on furlough.

If you have ever had to worry about losing your job, even temporarily, you know it is very stressful. You start wondering how you will make ends meet and how you will support your family. Then you start reflecting on the stress and frustration you are experiencing and you wonder if it is all worth it. You think, perhaps this is a message from the universe that I should be doing something different. You think, I don't really feel appreciated in this job. This is the position that many scientists across our country find themselves in at this moment.

And this is only one small part of the 800,000.

So to those of you who think the government shutdown is a good idea: are you sure about this? Are you sure you have thought about the consequences to people's lives? Are you sure you have thought about the consequences to this country?

To my colleagues in science: If you have any comments or corrections to what I've stated above, please notify me at eponym at jmlilly dot net.