Scientific research takes a quiet but devastating hit

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' mission statement vows "to advance our knowledge and understanding of the universe." But when the federal government shut down last Tuesday, its scientists were forced to trim their sails.

The center sent home more than 100 of its 900 employees, affecting as many as 60 projects -- including the mapping of solar flares, a threat to satellites that feed data to American smartphones. Disrupted federal funding is "so counterproductive" at a time of global competition for technological dominance, center spokesman David Aguilar lamented in an interview.

"For people to say that this is not important, that it doesn't have an impact," Aguilar added, reflects a lack of awareness "of what technology does for our lives."

While the economic fallout from closed national parks and unpaid federal workers began to hit almost immediately after the shutdown began, its effect on scientific research promises to kick in on a slower time scale and with less easily communicated consequences for many Americans.

"It's so difficult to explain to people why this is detrimental to the country, to scientific research, but it clearly is," Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.), a member of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said in an interview. "Those who do research understand what's going on, that this is a setback."


But just because veterans barred from war memorials and children denied medical treatment provide more stunning visuals than darkened offices at NASA doesn't mean the scientific shutdown lacks political risk for both parties.

California Rep. Henry Waxman, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, described the shutdown as a byproduct of GOP resistance to an active federal role in many issues, including research.

"The government serves a very useful and important purpose for the American people, and Republicans have no respect for that," Waxman said in an interview. "It's crazy to shut down this agency -- our economy, our energy future, the protection of our environment."

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a senior Science Committee member, did not deny that the closed government "is going to be disruptive to a lot of things, including scientific research."

The conservative stalwart placed blame squarely at Democrats' feet for insisting on reopening the government and raising the federal borrowing limit without compromising with the GOP on its policy agenda. "Absolutely, I reject" the notion that Republicans do not support a federal investment in scientific inquiry, he added.

Before the shutdown began, the Science panel planned this fall to move forward on a new version of the broad research and engineering bill known as the COMPETES Act. Reauthorizing COMPETES, Lipinski contended, promises to serve as a "real test for Republicans backing up their support for basic research."

Among the programs managed under that law is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the high-tech arm of the Energy Department that earned praise from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney last year but this year got hit with a budget slash of more than two-thirds from House Republicans.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), who represents the tech hotbed of Silicon Valley, described her district as a "multifaceted diamond" composed of research and development in technology, medicine and other scientific disciplines that help drive the U.S. economy.

In that process, Eshoo said in an interview last week, "there's a clear and important federal role that's stopped" since last week's shutdown.

Marcia McNutt, editor in chief of the journal Science, says the shutdown is strict about scientists being barred from work, from her experience working on shutdown contingency plans as the former head of the U.S. Geological Survey during President Obama's first term.

"The government rules for a shutdown are so strict that many scientists are not allowed to continue their work even as unpaid volunteers," McNutt wrote in an editorial earlier this week. "Experiments are interrupted, time series are broken, continuity is destroyed, and momentum is lost."

The university and industry laboratories cannot "take up the slack" in scientific research, she says, because they purposely do not duplicate government-funded work and cannot provide any oversight that the government also provides.

McNutt urged her former colleagues to take a page from the National Park Service when it comes to the harm of the shutdown.

"I urge the research community to take stock of real economic hardships, opportunities lost, and damage done, so as to more effectively argue for congressional action on the federal budget," she wrote. "From my time at the Department of the Interior, I know that one of the most effective cases against federal shutdown was made by the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS was armed with excellent economic estimates of the nationwide ripple effects of closing the national parks on travel and tourism for both domestic and foreign visitors. I hope that the research community can do as well as the NPS," McNutt said.

What's on -- and what's off -- in the agencies

The national laboratories and ongoing energy research projects are open for business, for now.

The Department of Energy is "operational," according to an agency spokesman, and the science and technology research funded by DOE continues to move forward, as the department has a contingency fund that should last a few weeks.

Outside of DOE, other nonfederal scientists can continue working under current government grants on environmental and energy projects, but cannot receive any new funds.

DOE has had to make some adjustments, however, and under its shutdown plan, the important advanced technology research agency ARPA-E looks like it has for all intents and purposes been shuttered. The DOE shutdown plan notes zero nonexempted ARPA-E employees allocated, and it runs on an annual budget, so there are no backup funds to support staff unless DOE shuffles some funds around.

If the shutdown lasts a few weeks, the national labs and other DOE-funded projects that are not related to national security will have to stop work, which could cause significant delays. These experiments are scheduled carefully and can often require synchronized steps, so if an experiment were to stop in the middle, it would have to start over from the beginning. Many of these projects must meet certain deadlines in order to get further funding, so setbacks could be costly.

Other projects involve living components, including work with algae for advanced biofuels that may need to be restarted if the scientists have to walk away from them. Researchers have also waited patiently for their time to use DOE user facilities like the Advanced Light Source or SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, and if they are shut down, rescheduling will be an issue.

A spokesman at SLAC could not comment on any future contingency plan but said, "If the shutdown is prolonged, impacts to programs and to employees will be unavoidable."

The real harm from the shutdown will be felt in the future, as solutions and breakthroughs are delayed and more scientists are dissuaded or turned away from pursuing innovative ideas, advocates say.

All analysis and review to provide new grants for projects from the National Science Foundation have ceased because of the budget impasse. The NSF website is shut down, and no one can access the site to work on applications for extensions or new grants, as well.

Work at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which provides scientific guidance for the administration, has also been ground to a halt.

"The private sector is really doing very little basic research anymore," said ex-Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), former chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, now a partner at K&L Gates. "The federal government is by far the biggest area for basic research. Once that stream of basic research slows down in the pipeline, it just puts us at a disadvantage internationally. Particularly China is really making a lot of effort to recruit our scientists here and to provide them the facilities that they need."

The shutdown comes on top of already deep cuts to scientific funding under sequestration that are hurting U.S. science and research, according to the heads of the nation's laboratories.

"One severe impact of the automatic spending cuts will only be felt years -- or even decades -- in the future, when the nation begins to feel the loss of important new scientific ideas that now will not be explored, and of brilliant young scientists who now will take their talents overseas or perhaps even abandon research entirely," Paul Alivisatos, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Eric Isaacs, director of Argonne National Laboratory; and Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, wrote earlier this year in an editorial in The Atlantic . Their words echo concerns voiced by current federal workers, who did not want to speak for the record.

"Laboratories will continue to open their doors, and scientists and engineers will go to work. But as we choke off our ability to pursue promising new ideas, we begin a slow but inexorable slide to stagnation," they wrote.

And as disappointing as the shutdown's first week proved for government-funded scientists, the approaching deadline to raise the federal borrowing limit could prove even more painful. Aguilar, of the Harvard astrophysics center, said that "what really concerns us is that this is just a prelude" to a flirtation with default on the national debt.

"It's a black hole," he said, "to use an astrophysical term."

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