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    Remember the Government Shutdown? It's Still Screwing Over Scientists in Antarctica

    Written by

    Grace Wyler


    Image: NASA

    It’s been nearly three weeks since the federal government reopened, and life in Washington has returned to its normal gridlocked pace. Federal employees are getting their paychecks and emails again, the Panda Cam is back online, and Congress has already moved on to the next impending fiscal crisis. Most of us can’t even remember what the whole goat rodeo was about in the first place.

    But on the other side of the Earth, in Antarctica, the government shutdown is a nightmare that won’t end. The 17-day gap in federal funding—which coincided with the start of the five-month summer research season—threw the entire US Antarctica program into chaos, leaving thousands of American scientists in logistical limbo and jeopardizing years of critical research into geology, astrophysics, and climate change.

    The Antarctic field season is still totally fucked even though the government is still open. And fucking up one field season will almost certainly cause a ripple through the field that will have ramifications for five to ten years,” said one Ph.D student, who is studying glaciology in Antarctica and wished to remain anonymous. After being initially postponed by the shutdown, his research in Antarctica will resume this season, although the scientific goals project have been scaled back by about 75 percent.

    In the weeks since the closure, the National Science Foundation, which oversees the Antarctica program, has been scrambling to salvage what’s left of the brief research season. But the tight time frame, and the logistical complexity of working at the end of the Earth, means that some of the research can’t be saved. Researchers are only now starting to assess the extent of the shutdown fallout in Antarctica.

    As of last week, the shutdown’s casualties include: an expedition to examine how melting ice sheets affect the marine ecosystem; a revolutionary ice drilling project to recover evidence of climate change; and a NASA balloon experiment that would have measured cosmic radiations in space for signals of the universe’s expansion.

    NASA's long-duration, high-altitude balloons are grounded in the South Pole this year. Photo via NASA.  

    The WISSARD drilling project, which last year was the first to discover microscopic life in an Antarctic lake, was also forced to cancel its second expedition, which researchers say would have provided critical information about the stability of the ice sheet. The WISSARD scientists will be allowed to move forward with a scaled back mission, but their drilling equipment will remain buried under the snow until at least next season.

    WISSARD scientists deploy sub-ice exploration equipment down the borehole at Lake Whillans in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of WISSARD. 

    A number of other smaller-scale research projects and expeditions have also been trimmed down or deferred until next year, delivering a major setback to the hundreds of scientists who have staked their careers on this research. The deferred projects will replace new funding proposals submitted for next season, setting off a chain reaction that researchers say could reverberate through Antarctic research for the next decade.

    And the Antarctica program is just one, albeit dramatic, example of the severe and lasting damage that the shutdown has inflicted on science research in the US.

    “It’s been extremely frustrating for scientists who are federally funding—they feel like they were collateral damage,” said Joanne Carney, director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “The federal government makes the critical investments in basic research, long-term high-risk research—it can take the types of risks that industry cannot. So it’s critical that there is some kind of sustainability in federal funding. You can’t just shut off research like that.”

    “The ripple effect is still going on,” Carney added. “We do not completely know the full implications of this.”

    Andrew Rosenberg, the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has been chronicling the effects of the shutdown on the organization’s 20,000-member network of scientists. In a recent interview with Motherboard, he ticked off the cases: a federal wildlife biologist who missed the entire field season for tracking endangered gray wolves; a team of South Carolina biology graduate students who were shut out of their labs and may now have to stay on for another semester; a post-doctoral candidate stranded at the University of Edinburgh without funding for her NSF fellowship. And the list goes on.

    “It's not like everybody just took a two-week holiday—the impacts have been pretty far-reaching,” Rosenberg said. “When you stop for a couple of weeks that delays fellowships and scholarships, and it also prevents access to data sets, or delays field seasons. It really has a long-term impact.”

    For federally-funded scientists, the shutdown problems have been compounded by the budget sequestration, which forced deep cuts in funding for science, technology, and medical research. Before last month’s funding gap, the NSF’s budget had already shrunk by $283 million this year, forcing the agency to support 1,000 fewer grants and 1,600 fewer graduate research fellows. The National Institutes of Health took an even bigger hit, with $1.6 billion cut from its budget in 2013 alone.

    If the sequestration continues, the agency is expected to lose $19 billion in funding over the next eight years. A survey presented to Congress last week by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology found that of 3,700 polled, 55 percent knew colleagues who had lost their jobs due to funding pressure, 68 percent said they did not have funds to expand their research, and 53 percent had turned away talented young researchers from their programs.

    It’s hard to overstate the cumulative impact that this uncertainty will have on the future of science research. Aside from the obvious scientific and economic losses, the U.S. risks losing years of new ideas and discoveries, the driving force of American innovation and global competitiveness. Worse still, the instability has alienated a new generation of scientists. Faced with dwindling job prospects and a political climate that is increasingly hostile to science, young researchers are starting to look overseas for research opportunities, and some are even leaving the field altogether.

    “It’s very demoralizing,” said Rosenberg. “People are starting to wonder if this is what they want to do with their careers.”