How the Government Shutdown Affects Science

Many science-based government agencies work behind the scenes to keep our lives running smoothly—from ensuring our food safety, to conducting life-saving research, to weathering storms. The current federal government shutdown has dire consequences for our daily lives. Ask Science explains. 

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #317

The United States is currently in the midst of the longest partial government shutdown in history which has lasted four weeks and counting. A partial shutdown requires that only federal employees deemed “essential” report to their jobs. That leaves 800,000 federal workers out of work or working without pay—this includes tens of thousands of federal contractors.

Science-based agencies that work behind the scenes to keep our lives running smoothly (from national parks to airplanes to the food we eat) are intertwined with the federal government in the United States. With much scientific research being funded by government agencies, how does the shutdown affect the progress of science? And how much of our daily lives relies on ongoing, government-run science projects? Let's find out.

The Government Shutdown Affects Our Ability to Prepare for Weather

Some meteorologists at the National Weather Service are being forced to work without pay if they are deemed essential. Those of us living toward the middle latitudes of the United States and currently experiencing intense storms are, of course, grateful for their service. However, preparation efforts for future storms have been put on hold.

For example, scientists at the National Hurricane Center, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are usually hard at work in the hurricane off-season honing and improving forecast techniques so that newly upgraded models are ready before the hurricanes arrive. However, with only one of 200 people working through the shutdown, those upgrades are falling woefully behind.

Large chunks of the population may be left vulnerable to wildfires as well once the season starts because the Forest Service has been unable to purchase much needed new equipment or to continue with training for thousands of firefighters. Without enough workers, they are also unable to make preparations to prevent future wildfires from spreading.

The Government Shutdown Affects the Safety of Our Food and Water

Almost all of the facilities that produce the food we eat every day are monitored for safety and cleanliness by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which normally conducts around 160 inspections per month. However, with hundreds of workers lost to the shutdown, keeping up with these inspections is impossible, even for high-risk foods like fresh produce. Remember the lettuce recall due to an E. coli outbreak just last month?

After almost 3.5 weeks of missed inspections, the FDA resumed inspections of food facilities deemed high-risk, including those for foods like cheese and fresh produce, by bringing back hundreds of unpaid workers. Low-risk foods, like baked goods, will still have to wait, however, because only about 10% of food inspectors are back on the job. Inspections of meat and some egg products are led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and are required by law to continue despite USDA workers still having to report to work for no pay.

The safety of our food and water supplies do not only rely on the FDA. Pollution inspectors at the Environmental Protection Agency, charged with keeping industrial facilities in check to protect our air and water, are no longer working. The EPA has also had to stop efforts to clean up toxic waste sites called Superfund sites like the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. The National Institutes of Health usually leads a research program to better understand the effects of such Superfund toxic-waste sites on the environment and the surrounding people, but the program doesn’t have funding to continue during the shutdown.  

One ecologist who has monitored the streams in Shenandoah National Park for the impact of acid rain as part of a 40-year effort had to stop taking stream samples because he couldn’t enter the park under the shutdown rules.

Around this time, farmers usually turn to a monthly report put out by the Department of Agriculture with information on supply and demand of agricultural products in order to decide what to plant. But the Department of Agriculture remains closed so no report has been published.


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.