The Government Shutdown and A Window of Opportunity

So, the federal government shut down today. I’m not going to get into the details of how we got to this point as a nation- not really my area of expertise. The government shutdown will affect people in many different ways, but the scientific community is definitely taking a hit. It’s not just closed national parks, museums and panda cams. There are ripple effects further than most people realize. Even the Mars Curiosity rover is on standby.

Non-essential scientists cannot do their jobs today or any other day until congress works out a budget for the 2014 fiscal year. Experiments will not be done. Experiments that have been started cannot be finished. All of these are experiments that will eventually have to be repeated. I can’t think of any ongoing work that can just be ‘skipped.’ Not only is there a real cost for the supplies, reagents and personnel hours to get this research back online, but we are sacrificing our most precious resource in science- time. Information maintained in our federally-supported databases is no longer current. Launch windows are still closing during the Congressional stalemate.* The CDC is no longer monitoring disease outbreaks like influenza.

None of the federal granting agencies are accepting or reviewing grant proposal submissions. This means that scientists that don’t work directly for the government, but rely on government funds to support their research (basically all of academia) will have to go without. They will either have to wait for decisions or disbursements. For most of us, our labs have funded projects in progress and we can continue to keep spending the money in our accounts. However, the future is even more uncertain.

These recent events bring to the forefront the ugly side of our national basic research enterprise. There have been grumblings for a while about stagnating funds and what to do with the glut of STEM trainees with advanced degrees. Our current system is broken and unsustainable. Sure, there are those scientists among us that will continue to be successful at the funding game, but a lot of good science is falling through the cracks.

The nature of basic research is incompatible with private/industry interests for several reasons. There usually isn’t a clear path for a return on investment and even when there is one, it can be much longer than any rational investor would support. Also, private funding of research entangles economic interests with scientific studies. New innovations will come at a price outside of the lab rather than be made publicly available. Alternatively, some findings may trigger suppression if it affects corporate bottom lines. Of course, these things are possible as long as there is any human and monetary involvement (which, of course, there will always be), but our current system does a relatively good job at openness. The cost of modern science makes is prohibitively expensive for scientists to go it alone and stake their own money.** Finally, most basic science is useful in the context of larger research communities and the lone mad scientist would be at a disadvantage. Adam Ruben had some more creative ideas last week for laboratory fundraising, but hopefully if won’t come to those.

This is a serious question for the scientific community.

How do we create a better funding system and infrastructure for scientific research?

Surely, we are creative enough to come up with something better. I know there are a lot of engineers with the day off that could take this time to design an improved system. I’m tired of bemoaning funding allocations and reading commentaries about how scientists must ‘settle’ for other employment opportunities.***Anybody out there have any ideas? Now that the government doors are closed, let’s take this opportunity to open a window to something better.


* NASA scientists and engineers had been furtively working towards the Mars MAVEN mission set to launch in November. The laws of physics allow for a launch window only every 26 months. If the mission isn’t ready for launch, it will be 2016 before they can try again. When you think about the pace of science and engineering advances, two years is an enormous amount of time to waste. Not to mention it’s a $600 million investment. This was the only official link I could find for MAVEN that hadn’t dark:  and here is the Wikipedia entry:

** Grad student stipends and postdoc salaries don’t allow much room for building up savings, but maybe there are some of us from the upper echelons of society that have access to personal wealth.

*** This is NOT a disparagement of ‘alternative’ opportunities, but for those trainees that thrive on research, there should be a way to continue to be productive at it (and still earn a living wage).

Links on commentary about how the government shutdown will affect science:


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