Thousands of scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will have to freeze ongoing experiments and direct research vessels back to port if congressional negotiators are unable to reach an agreement today to continue to fund the federal government.
A federal shutdown could interrupt research, delay crucial information needed for fisheries management and cost the agency more money in the long run, according to former federal employees who held leadership positions at NOAA during the last federal shutdown, 15 years ago.
"It doesn't save money to shut the government down, it just costs more money," said D. James Baker, who ran NOAA from 1993 to 2001 and now directs the Clinton Foundation's Global Carbon Measurement Program. "It is not an effective budget process and only irritates everybody."
During what he describes as the "very strange time" of the last government shutdown -- when tumultuous budget fights in late 1995 and early 1996 resulted in about a month of halted government operations -- Baker had to shutter NOAA's 12 marine sanctuaries, locking out recreational fishermen and divers, put uniformed service personnel to work answering phones and bring research ships back to port, only to have them leave again soon thereafter.
Many of the closures would be similar if the government shuts down this weekend. NOAA's plan for operations in the event of a shutdown would furlough thousands of researchers, shutter sanctuaries and bring in research ships at the height of the field season.
But many critical functions from the science agency would continue: NOAA would keep on board thousands of employees to enforce fisheries and endangered species protections, make weather predictions, maintain data for ships to navigate and ports to operate and secure shuttered aquariums and marine sanctuaries. Agency officials said last night that they are still hopeful they may avoid a government shutdown but are working on plans to provide "services essential to ensure the safety of life and property" in the event their funding runs out.
NOAA would grant exceptions to 5,709 employees -- more than a third of its full-time federal workforce --- to continue to work in the event of a federal shutdown, according to a detailed "Plan for Orderly Shutdown" the Commerce Department released this morning.
The bulk of those continuing employees would be at the National Weather Service, which would keep on 4,016 employees to continue to provide weather forecasts. The ongoing "essential" workers at other NOAA agencies would maintain climate monitoring research to ensure continuity of long-term records, monitor command and control of environmental satellites and continue response and monitoring of the tsunami and nuclear incident in Japan.
The plan would also keep on 654 employees at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Half of those would be allowed to continue work because they are funded by means other than annual appropriations. The other half include law enforcement officers who would protect endangered species, prevent overfishing and monitor aquariums and other federal property. The National Ocean Service would keep 250 employees to ensure maritime commerce is not interrupted, monitoring water level data for ships entering U.S. ports, update natural charts and position information.
But the federal shutdown would interrupt work for some 8,000 other federal employees at NOAA and most of the 7,500 contractors and associates with the agency. That could pose major problems for the science and research agency, according to Steve Murawski, the former chief scientist at NOAA.
"People have a number of complicated experiments they are running, and if there is a shutdown, there would be lost information and lost opportunities. It creates all kinds of ripple effects that people don't really think about," said Murawski, who retired from federal service earlier this year and is now a professor at the University of Florida. "People think the government is a bunch of office bureaucrats, and in the case of a science agency, it's not true."
Murawski was at NOAA's fisheries science center in Woods Hole, Mass., during the last government shutdown. Employees were not allowed to go to work, but many did research "at their kitchen tables" when possible, Murawski said.
But kitchen table research is not possible for many scientists tied to labs and ships. A temporary shutdown could get particularly expensive for the agency if it has to bring in its research ships, some of which are hundreds of miles offshore. There are currently 17 research ships at sea for NOAA. Two of them are doing research related to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that has funding unrelated to government appropriations.
"It was difficult for NOAA ships, because if there was a shutdown they could not be operating," Baker said of the last shutdown. Baker said he told the ships to stay in place at the beginning of the 1995 shutdown, but as it stretched on the agency had to ask them to come back to port.
"By the time most of them made it back, the shutdown was over and they had to head back. It ended up being much more costly," Baker said.
The possibility of a government shutdown next week poses particular problems, since the spring kicks off the beginning of the busy field season for NOAA ships. The research vessels are heavily scheduled and any delay could create a scheduling backlog and interrupt other planned trips. The vessels conduct fisheries surveys that are crucial to set catch limits, surveys of threatened species and hydrographic surveys. Many of the employees on the ships are contract laborers who are paid by the hour.
"Bringing ships back to port is tremendously inefficient and interrupts the flow of information," said Murawski. "Not only that, it is a big morale crusher for people as well."
The transition plan released by Commerce today gives one to two days of pay for 59 employees aboard research ships, enough time for them to get back to port. It also allots a day's salary for another 21 employees currently traveling or at conferences who would have to come home.
"You end up having to do things twice. It costs money to send people home, it costs money to bring people back ... it just adds more time and difficulty," Baker said.
Another 334 employees would also stay on the payroll temporarily, for one to six days, to oversee computers, process payroll information and modify or cancel contracts.
A temporary shutdown would likely not lead to the closure of any fisheries, since enforcement personnel would be kept on board. No fisheries were shut down during the last government closure, Baker said, since it would usually take action from fisheries councils and federal officials to approve such measures. But if a shutdown went on for months and into new catch seasons, he said, it could pose problems.
But a shutdown could delay some critical fisheries decisions. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled to meet this weekend and next week to make a decision on catch limits for salmon this year. The council is expected to approve some catch for the fishery, which has been closed in an effort to let the stocks recover. But that meeting could come to an abrupt halt, since the staff of the council is on federal payroll and the council includes several employees of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"Here we are about to finally get a salmon season after five years or so and we might lose it, not because of water diversions or other problems but because of a government shutdown," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
During the last shutdown, many of the employees kept on for the duration had limited abilities.
Andrew Rosenberg, former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service who was in the Northeast regional office during the last closure, was at his desk to respond to any emergencies but could not carry on the normal work of the agency without any of his colleagues there.
"It was just me and someone from enforcement. ... It was not like I could run downstairs and issue permits; there was not a lot of normal activity," said Rosenberg, now the chief ocean scientist for Conservation International. "There were a lot of pretty irate people."
But there was one upside. "I did catch up on a lot of scientific literature," Rosenberg said.