Jeffery Steevens, SETAC North America Executive Committee Member-At-Large, and Roman Lanno, SETAC North America President
The United States government shutdown from December 2018–January 2019 was the longest in U.S. history and clearly had detrimental ramifications for our discipline of environmental science and government agencies, such as the Department of Agriculture, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Geological Survey. Many of our members in SETAC North America were affected by the shutdown, in all sectors – government, academia and business – including government employees, government contractors in business and academics relying on government funding. Comments in an online article in Nature titled, “Scientists Despair as US Government Shutdown Drags On” point out that the shutdown left scientists “weary, worried and demoralized.” Not only were federal employees legally barred from working and went without pay, but while on furlough, an individual remains an employee of the government, and they must adhere to the standards of ethical conduct, which include rules that place restrictions on outside employment.
While the short-term effects of this shutdown are evident, the more critical long-term effects will be more difficult to comprehend. Communication across the environmental science discipline were hampered by the inability of government scientists to access email or their telephone until a funding deal was reached. Scientists on furlough and contractors working for the agencies were not paid, and while these detrimental effects attracted the attention of media and the public, the major concerns about the shutdown are the unknown long-term effects on environmental science. These long-term effects include disruptions to the scientific planning process within federal agencies, delayed funding provided to researchers, missed collaborations across sectors, inhibited research contributions, slowed career paths of individuals, and they may result in problems with future recruitment of talent into these agencies.
Researchers had to place their program activities on hold. What are the consequences of an unplanned break in research? Collaborations that rely on government partners have been made more difficult because of having to find alternate channels for communication and time for furloughed scientists to participate inprojects. This affects proposal development and writing, the conduct of ongoing research, contribution to journal publications and the ability to engage in scientific workshops, meetings and conferences. Access to government facilities that host special research capabilities and instrumentation was unavailable to academic and private sector partners because facilities were closed. Scheduled time to utilize these facilities will have to be compressed to accommodate a year’s worth of research into 11 months or rescheduled to another year, further delaying research.
Early career government scientists were negatively affected by this shutdown because it decreased their window for productive time during the year by almost 10%. This will adversely impact their ability to write proposals, contribute on graduate student committees and grow their research programs. Students were also affected by this shutdown. Government laboratories frequently provide opportunities for students to gain valuable experience by participating in research and learning how environmental science is translated into decisions. The shutdown decreased the amount of time students had to interact with scientists and upon their return found government scientists having to prioritize research activities above the ability to participate in educational outreach and hosting students in laboratories. More importantly, the long-term effect on the recruitment of graduating students will be negatively affected by the uncertainties that future shutdowns may present to career development.
While this article focuses on the direct impacts of the government shutdown on federal government employee research, planning and service, we need to be mindful of the domino effect created in academia and business. Like early career government scientists, junior and untenured faculty in academic institutions are affected disproportionately as they try to establish their careers and a path to tenure. With government funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), unable to receive and review research proposals and issue payments, the danger exists of delays, or even cancellations, in the distribution of research funds. These delays in funding may result in disruption of the recruiting cycle for graduate students and gaps in research programs, which may lead to issues related to tenure and promotion decisions. For example, after the end of the 2013 government shutdown, the NSF rescheduled the due dates for proposals to about 50 research programs. Unfortunately, the tenure clock does not stop for government shutdowns and delays.
The sectors of SETAC North America that may be most negatively impacted by the government shutdown are environmental consulting firms and analytical laboratories. Like universities, delays in payments to contractors would result in cash flow issues within these companies. Congress has voted to pay federal employees for the time they were furloughed, but similar compensation has generally not been available to government contractors.
The long-term effects of the government shutdown are likely significant, and we do not know all the nuances of how these effects will play out. However, the ability of government scientists and their collaborators to adapt or compensate will hopefully minimize the most significant potential adverse effects on our field of environmental science. The questions these researchers address still need to be answered.
SETAC has plans for several workshops this year on various topics of importance to members of government, academia and business, such as the Environmental Risk Assessment of PFAS SETAC North America Focused Topic Meeting, and needs to involve all three sectors in helping secure funding and effective planning for these collaborative workshops. We recognize the importance of our federal government members and those in other sectors to our organization, and as we return to business as usual, SETAC remains committed to providing opportunities to stay connected, communicate with colleagues and remain resilient in the face of this shutdown.