Government Shutdown Screws Science

By Joelle Renstrom | Published

House of RepsSigh… I think that about sums up most people’s feelings about the government shutdown. Oh, did you not hear me smash things against the wall, pretending to nail the heads of our elected leaders who stubbornly refuse to compromise, and at our expense? At least they’re still getting paid. Oh, and they all still have health insurance. Phew! I sure was worried about them.

I actually had a student walk in this morning asking if the shutdown meant class was canceled. Why didn’t I think of that? In my writing classes this semester, we read, analyze, and write about space. It’s pretty awesome. Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, space speeches and goals set forth by presidents — we cover them all. So when another student asked if NASA would be impacted by the shutdown, I had to sigh again, refrain from throwing anything, and say that yep — NASA’s getting screwed, along with a bunch of other science-related agencies. Great job, government!

Spoiler alert: the rest of this post will be depressing. Unless you hate science and technology.

When it comes to space and NASA, everything but the ISS is shut down. Almost nothing NASA does is considered essential, other than keeping our folks on the ISS alive. Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, it’s estimated that 600 at the most will continue working. That means the work they’re doing on new satellites, rockets, and other forthcoming missions will grind to an abrupt halt. Depending on how long the shutdown lasts, the lack of progress in these areas might negatively impact these developments. The aliens sure are laughing at us now, aren’t they?

The Environmental Protection Agency is also closed, which means 17,000 EPA employees will be twiddling their thumbs instead of cleaning toxic sites, assessing water and air for pollutants, monitoring power plants, or providing emergency assistance. If you happen to have a big vat of toxic chemicals in your yard, now would be the time to dump it into the river. No problem.

panda cam

Think you’ll be visiting national museums, zoos, or nationals parks anytime soon? Think again. All Smithsonian museums (there are 19) are closed. A few employees at the National Zoo will stick around to make sure the animals don’t starve, but other than that, nada. And, in case you hadn’t heard, no more panda cam. Same goes for the national parks, which include the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Independence Hall, Alcatraz, and loads of other places. Even the National Park Services website is down.

The National Science Foundation, which funds some of the most important and life-changing advances in science and medicine will shut down too. So, if you have a research grant to do something incredibly important, like working on cures for diseases, sorry — no money for you. And if you thought you could get work done at home, think again — websites and downloads aren’t operational either.

Even the CDC is feeling the effects of the shutdown. Apparently, the CDC isn’t considered all that essential. While doctors and scientists will remain on the job, the assistants and secretaries have been sent home, so there’s no one around to help facilitate the work and travel of the essential folks. There also won’t be enough support staff to help monitor diseases and infection rates. Good times!

Plain and simple, science and technology suffer at the hands of politicians, just like the rest of us. You’d think that might catalyze compromise, but no such luck — at least, not yet. All we can do is hope our esteemed leaders grow up and figure this out soon. In the meantime, throwing things helps — a little.