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 Government Shutdown Slows Scientific Progress

The majority of scientists at NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the FDA, the Department of Agriculture, and the US Geological Survey have all been furloughed and thus cannot continue their research projects during the shutdown. This means a slowdown of scientific progress on a number of studies, including space exploration, life-saving drugs, and climate change.

Scientists are left unable to work from home and not allowed to check work their work e-mail. They are unable to attend meetings where ideas are exchanged and future research priorities are decided. Because of the shutdown, 10% of the planned talks were canceled at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society, a gathering of thousands of astronomers and aerospace engineers and hundreds of USDA employees were recently unable to participate in a similarly important, large-scale meeting of agricultural researchers.

The partial shutdown has further affected scientific progress even for researchers who may not be directly employed by the federal government but collaborate with those who are. Atmospheric scientists can’t build simulations of cloud formation because they can’t get access to the data they need which is housed on NASA supercomputers. Time sensitive projects relying on access to data or servers housed by the USDA or the National Weather Service—such as those monitoring weather reports or conducting seasonal animal research—are in indefinite limbo.

New projects are also going unfunded. The National Science Foundation awards almost $8 billion in funding for research projects each year, including $42 million in the first week of January last year. This year, $0 has been awarded so far in the first two weeks of January thanks to the shutdown. NASA just announced that it has run out of funding for its postdoctoral fellows—those who work as temporary contractors after earning their PhD but before finding permanent positions—who will now be placed on indefinite furlough without the possibility of back pay. The situation is so dire that a GoFundMe page has been set up to support these promising young scientists who research “our planet’s climate, unveil the wonders of other planets, and help us search for life beyond Earth.”

There is some good news, however: the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Energy are still funded and operating.

The Government Shutdown Hurts Scientific Potential

The partial shutdown also hurts science in the long term by turning away the would-be scientists of tomorrow. All 19 of the Smithsonian museums along with the National Zoo are closed for the duration of the shutdown. Young people who had planned on doing scientific research as government employees are already deciding that they should choose different careers because government jobs are now seen as less secure and thus less appealing.

And over 40,000 immigration hearings have been canceled and, in some cases, delayed for years. We may never know the extent of the associated loss of untapped scientific potential.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Empty lab image courtesy of Shutterstock.


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.