US government shutdown threatens lasting space science impact
95% of NASA employees are unable to work, many fearing long-term consequences. Richard A Lovett reports.
Last week hundreds of space scientists and astronomers were barred from attending major conferences and ordered to cease work on research or even answer emails because of America’s ongoing partial shutdown of government services.
That is just one way in which, as the shutdown lurches into its fourth week with no end in sight, one of its casualties could be the future of American space science.
The shutdown is the result of a political deadlock between President Donald Trump and the US Congress over whether the US will dedicate $5.7 billion to start construction of a wall along the Mexico border. In the process, about 800,000 federal employees have been either furloughed or forced to work without pay, pending resolution of the dispute.
Among the agencies affected is NASA, which has seen 95% of its workforce furloughed, including most of its scientists. For all practical purposes, these furloughed scientists have been ordered not to even think about their research while the agency is shuttered.
The first big impact came last week, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) - often referred to as the “Super Bowl of Astronomy” - held between January 6 and 10 in Seattle, Washington. More than 250 pre-paid badges were never collected, says AAS’s executive officer Kevin Marvel. The vast majority of these were for federal employees from NASA, the Smithsonian, and related programs.
At the same time, the Associated Press reported that as many as 1200 other federal scientists were expected to miss the American Meteorological Society's January annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics SciTech Forum and Exposition in San Diego, California.
In other words, entire fields of federal research have ground to a halt.
Not only are scientists missing important meetings, but they have been prevented from carrying out research years in the planning.
One space scientist, who prefers not to be named, told Cosmos friends in NASA were unable to travel to take measurements in a project that was otherwise ready to go.
That’s a problem because, unlike laboratory experiments, astronomical events cannot be rescheduled at the government’s convenience. Not only was the research opportunity lost, but so was everything that went into setting it up.
“It’s a waste of money as well as talent,” the scientist says.
The exact rules under which furloughed scientists are operating are difficult to confirm because even NASA’s press office is shut down and unable to answer questions. But multiple sources have confirmed that furloughed scientists are precluded from doing anything to pursue their research, even on their own time.
That means that unless the shutdown ends soon, future projects could also be threatened, because the ban includes working on the next round of proposals.
“As a scientist your whole life is related to work,” Cosmos’s source says. “The life of a scientist is they have to work. Proposals are due. It’s very bad for science. Everything is up in the air.”
But that’s just one problem.
Furloughed scientists aren’t being paid, and many are starting to face bills, ranging from groceries to mortgages.
“Many of them are rightfully upset and seriously considering finding different jobs in the future,” says Marvel.
Even if the shutdown were to be resolved immediately, the space scientist says, people don’t take jobs with agencies like NASA in order to get rich. “If you want to make money, you don’t go into science. It’s a very simple rule.”
Instead, they go into such careers for the love of discovery.
But if that means they face the risk of being financially whipsawed - not just now, but any time in the future when a similar political deadlock arises - that’s a strong impetus for them to think something on the order of “I’m just going to go into industry and make money”.
The space scientist says, “This is pushing talent away.”
Under US law, the only government employees who can work if their agencies are in shutdown are those whose jobs involve the protection of lives or property. And while almost all of NASA’s employees are furloughed, there are a few who are allowed to remain on the job – without pay – including ones directly involved in spacecraft operations.
“Continuing to operate spacecraft falls under the ‘protecting property’ aspect,” says Bruce Jakosky, principal investigator of NASA’s Mars-orbiting MAVEN spacecraft.
Also, several of NASA’s more high-profile projects are largely done by non-government employees.
“People working under contract to NASA are allowed to continue operating as long as the contract is in force and there are funds to pay them,” Jakosky says.
In the case of MAVEN, he adds, “as we were coming up toward possible shutdown, we made sure that the contracts had been properly extended and that there were funds on the contracts. The contractors are funded until funds run out, which won’t occur for another couple of months.”
The same applies to New Horizons, which flew by a far-distant worldlet known as Ultima Thule on New Year’s Day, 11 days into the shutdown.
“It has not much affected us other than limiting our public outreach because NASA was forced to close,” says its principal investigator, Alan Stern.
“But,” he adds, “if this goes on two more months, we will be out of funding, which will cause deep problems.”
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is in the same boat - open for the moment because its funding is administered by California Institute of Technology.
Another space/astronomy operation that is safe for the moment is the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which operates two radio astronomy facilities and partners with the European Southern Observatory and other international organisations to fund the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile.
NRAO operations, says spokesperson David Finley, currently use previously obligated funds from the National Science Foundation - funds that should last into mid-to-late February.
But NRAO, too, could eventually face a problem. “If the shutdown were to continue into the spring, we believe that US-based NRAO activities will eventually shut down,” Finley says.
ALMA’s funding, however, is probably safe, because it is obligated under an international agreement. “Any failure to pay the local staff in Chile will result in significant lawsuits and fines,” Finley says.
Meanwhile, President Trump visited New Orleans, speaking to the American Farm Bureau Federation, another group hard-hit by the shutdown, which has also closed the US Department of Agriculture.
“We’re going to have a wall, we’re going to have a barrier,” Trump reasserted, according to USA Today, again signalling that the shutdown is unlikely to end soon.
It’s not clear how the farmers responded, but the effects of an indefinite standoff on US space research won’t be good.
“If the shutdown goes on another month, the damage in terms of disruption to the scientific research enterprise of the US in astronomy (and many other areas) is going to be significant,” the American Astronomical Society’s Marvel says.