Scientific research has been on hold since shutdown

Renee Schoof

A scientist who arrived in Antarctica only to have his research stopped because of the government shutdown blogged that idled scientists have been made “hostages . . . at the hands of our own government, here at the end of the earth.”

Whether or not the House and Senate reach a deal to end the 2-week-old government shutdown, the closing already has hammered scientific endeavors, not only in the southernmost continent, but across the U.S. as well.

Most of NASA is furloughed. Nobel laureates working in federal research have had to stay home.

Yet some scientific work, particularly in the Antarctic, could be scratched because so much money has been wasted once everything was put on hold. On Oct. 8, the same day that a group of scientists arrived on a research vessel at Palmer Station, one of three permanent U.S. research centers in Antarctica, the National Science Foundation said that it was putting the three centers on caretaker status because it was running out of funding.

“Although we are proceeding now under the assumption that we will be returning home, a circumstance that everyone is very disappointed by, we are certainly prepared and in a position to resume our experiments and sampling as soon as an agreement is reached,” James R. Collins, who blogged about being a “hostage,” said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

He described the situation for Washington to act as “a very frustrating and bewildering holding pattern.”

Officials at the National Science Foundation had been furloughed because of the shutdown and could not be reached for comment. In an earlier statement, the foundation said that it would try to keep the research program going when funds start flowing again.

Collins, a graduate student in a joint program with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, went to the Antarctic to work on his Ph.D research on how algae use chemical compounds to communicate the presence of ultraviolet radiation to each other. He’s also working on a long-term ecological study at Palmer and 25 other spots around the globe to assess the impacts of climate change.

The University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean doesn’t have research staff in the Antarctic now, but the shutdown has put some of its work in the Arctic on hold, said Thomas Ackerman, director of the joint institute and a professor of atmospheric sciences.

“A group of our research scientists is already supposed to be in the Alaskan Arctic Ocean area making observations using a (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) airplane,” he said in an email. “That plane is grounded due to the shutdown. Alaska has been experiencing warm weather so we are still hoping to get the flights in if the government shutdown ends this week.”

In addition, buoys that contain scientific equipment are deployed in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska every summer and are supposed to be retrieved before bad weather sets in, Ackerman said. But if the NOAA ship slated to do so is still in port, it’s not clear if the ship will be able to go out after the shutdown.

“If the buoys are not picked up they will most likely be lost in the bad winter weather, along with onboard instruments and data,” Ackerman said.

The American Physical Society, a nonprofit group of physicists, warned on Tuesday that the “U.S. scientific enterprise is on the brink of catastrophe,” citing the threat of the Antarctic science program’s cancellation and the prospect of the Department of Energy closing its 17 laboratories.

“This is not a simple thing,” said Michael Lubell, a society spokesman and physicist who used to work at the Energy Department labs. “It’s not like putting a padlock on the door. You’re dealing with very expensive scientific equipment that if not handled properly can be destroyed.”

Woods Hole Oceanic Institution blog from Antarctica
The Long Term Ecological Research Network
By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau