Welcome back, federal workers! Look how we screwed up your research
Hooray! Congress has given the federal government permission to begin functioning again. National parks and monuments are reopening and the National Zoo’s panda cam is back. But after a 16-day hiatus, which by one estimate cost the country up to $24 billion, there have been painful impacts on scientific research — including research that could help tell us WTF is going on with the climate.
In Antarctica, scientists who study the Adelie penguin worry that they won’t be in place when the fast-declining species arrives later this year at its nesting and breeding grounds. “If we have breaks in that record, there are a lot of scientific statistical analysis of our observations that we can’t do. And so in our case, these data, the observations are all just gone forever. We never get them back,” said Hugh Ducklow, an oceanographer and professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Ducklow said he’ll be waiting for the NSF to provide guidance in the coming days on how it plans to reopen and what that means for field researchers. With the South Pole summer season limiting his window, though, he’s worried that time is short. “I’m optimistic we will resume our season, ideally within a few weeks,” he said. “If we delay much into November, we start to incur irreparable losses.”
Scientists probing climate impacts in other regions have also been hamstrung by the political spat. The shutdown was a hot topic at the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin this week, as chronicled by Northwestern University’s Medill Reports:
Jennifer Lennon, a master’s student at the University of Maine and an advisee of Hall, does not work in Antarctica, but said her research has also been delayed by the shutdown. She has a host of beryllium-10 samples waiting to be dated in Lawrence Livermore. The finalization of her master’s thesis depends on that data.
Lennon is dating the age of a moraine located in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. Beryllium-10 is an isotope generated when cosmic rays strike bedrock. The dating of these isotopes is similar to carbon-14 dating of organisms in as it can provide an approximate age for something, in this case, when the rock was exposed to air because of a receding glacier. …
Toby Koffman, a PhD student at the University of Maine, is also waiting for data from Lawrence Livermore. He canceled his upcoming trip to the California lab and hopes he will not have to wait too much longer for the beryllium-10 samples he submitted for his research to be dated. Koffman conducts research on glaciation in New Zealand. He said he wants to defend his dissertation in the spring, but realizes he may be very rushed if he does not get the data soon.
And it’s not just climate research that was hobbled by the shutdown. Flu season surveillance was curtailed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the review of grant applications has been delayed at many agencies; and major radio astronomy facilities were closed for the shutdown, along with the feeds of data that flow into international databases.
On a less tangible level, Politico noted that the uncertainty of the last three weeks could make the U.S. seem like a less attractive place for scientists to work than other countries. “Would you go work for someone where the funding is squishy?” said Georges Benjamin, executive director at the American Public Health Association.