Monday, October 14, 2013

Shutting down Science

As most of you know, the U.S. federal government has largely shut down, except for services essential to preserve life or property.   Federal contractors, such as the Department of Energy laboratories are, so far, mostly remaining opening, burning through any carry-over funds.

Even though many institutions have remained open, the consequences for science (and, by analogy, for many federal activities) are severe.   Many scientific experiments are rather large, and it requires significant planning to do anything.  These efforts cannot 'turn on a dime.'   

This is particularly true for the U.S. Antarctic program.  Antarctic science is cyclical - almost everything happens during the brief Austral summer.  It is also incredibly dependent on an amazing logistics program, to make sure that everyone and everything needed makes it to Antarctica.  There is no corner store if you forget a pair of pliers. 

In a normal October, Lockheed-Martin Antarctic Support, the U.S. Air Force, and other logistics providers would be shipping supplies and people to Antarctica, opening up buildings, preparing to set up field camps, etc.  This is a prelude to the brief season when most of the science is done.  Now, mid-stride, they have to abandon a year of planning, stop moving people and material South, and prepare to reverse the process, while they determine what services are considered 'essential.'  Even if Congress and the President reach agreement, and re-open the federal government tomorrow, major damage will have been done to the season, and many (possibly even most) of the planned scientific studies will have to be scrapped or postponed. 

As a scientist, I am distressed by these abrupt cancellations.  It is disheartening to have our faces rubbed in the fact that our bosses (here, I mean Congress) really do not care what we do.  In this fight, science is so insignificant that it merits neither support nor opposition.

As a taxpayer, I am appalled by the enormous financial waste.  The NSF spends tens of millions of dollars to hire and train people, equip them and fly them to Antarctica.  Most of this money has already been spend, and many of the people are already in Antarctica.  Cancelling the season now would makes absolutely no sense, and would be a huge financial waste.

And, as a husband and father, I am concerned about my own future.  I am 'fortunate' to work in a division at a national laboratory that is still operating, so I am still being paid.  However,  if the shutdown continues, none of us know how long this will last.

Before I close, here are a two other blog posts on the shutdown:

From an anonymous woman who blogs from McMurdo Station:  
From the users group for Brookhavens Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider: