Science and the Federal Shutdown
What happens to science programs when government agencies don’t get funding?
by Mary Miller • January 18, 2019
With the federal government partially shut down, many people don’t feel a direct effect of the hundreds of thousands of federal workers who are either furloughed and not on the job or working without pay. But here at the Exploratorium, we are feeling their absence in many ways. We have strong education and scientific partnerships and work closely with many science agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), NASA, and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
For the Wired Pier, our environmental field station, we feed data from instruments maintained by NOAA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), but those feeds have been interrupted. If you click on the data source (in this case, the NOAA carbon buoy that is tracking ocean acidification), we are getting this message:
The sensors themselves are probably still collecting environmental information and the data streams will come back online when the government reopens, but in the meantime this important ocean research isn’t being conducted and some of our Observatory exhibits and the Wired Pier website will show the data gaps. This is perhaps a small matter, especially compared to the impact felt, either to their pocket books or their morale, by the scientists, engineers and other support staff who work for our science agencies. These mission-driven civil servants have dedicated their lives and careers to serving the public, helping us understand, adapt and prepare for environmental change and natural disasters and to protect human health, property and our natural heritage.
To be sure, NOAA’s National Weather Service meteorologists are still on the job (albeit without getting paychecks), creating essential weather forecasts and issuing weather watches and warnings like the ones we’ve been getting in the bay area this week from the powerful Pacific storms that have been hitting the coasts and mountains of the west coast. I recently read “Fifth Risk,” an excellent book by Michael Lewis who digs deep into the fundamental missions of three agencies to find out exactly what scientists and program managers do for us at the Departments of Agriculture and Energy and NOAA. I did a little digging myself through the mission statements of our science agencies, including those dedicated to human health and safety, and offer up a brief compendium. If you follow the links, many have statements on their front page about the lapse in government appropriations, since it potentially impacts how data and information on the websites is updated.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): "To understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources. Dedicated to the understanding and stewardship of the environment." NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce which also houses the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST's mission is to "promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards, and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life."
United States Geological Survey (USGS): "USGS serves the Nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life."
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): "Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth." During the current and previous administrations, Earth science has been both in and out of NASA’s mission statement, but NASA has a robust earth sciences division that launches earth-observing satellites to study the home planet.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): "The mission of the EPA is to protect human health and the environment." Previously, the EPA included in its directive for the clean water act that it was responsible for developing “science-based standards for water quality” but now ammended to “works with states, tribes and other stake-holders to develop recommended safe water quality levels"… a seemingly small but significant change in its mission.
Department of Interior (includes the Fish and Wildlife Service which protects endangered species and the National Park Service which protects the crown jewels of America’s nature reserves): "The U.S. Department of the Interior protects and manages the Nation's natural resources and cultural heritage; provides scientific and other information about those resources; and honors its trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated Island Communities." This was the mission statement under Obama. The current administration still has science in the Interior's mission statement, but changed protect to conserves natural resources and added “create opportunities for the American people” with “energy dominance” as part of its vision: "The Department of the Interior (DOI) conserves and manages the Nation’s natural resources and cultural heritage for the benefit and enjoyment of the American people, provides scientific and other information about natural resources and natural hazards to address societal challenges and create opportunities for the American people, and honors the Nation’s trust responsibilities or special commitments to American Indians, Alaska Natives, and affiliated island communities to help them prosper."
Food and Drug Administration: "The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation."
National Science Foundation: "To promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and to secure the national defense; and for other purposes. NSF envisions a nation that capitalizes on new concepts in science and engineering and provides global leadership in advancing research and education."
US Coast Guard The USCG is a branch of the military under the Department of Homeland Security (which is currently unfunded in this shut down): "The mission of the United States Coast Guard is to ensure our Nation's maritime safety, security and stewardship." USCG cutters and icebreakers travel to remote areas for their mission and scientists can apply to conduct research on the ships, especially the icebreakers that operate in the Arctic and Antarctic. In 2002, while an Exploratorium crew was on a web expedition to Antarctica, I was invited on the USCGC Polar Star for a day while it was clearing a path through the sea ice for the resupply ship that brings food and provisions for the McMurdo research station. It was an amazing experience and this video shows how the Polar Star breaks ice. Coast Guard officers and crew are still on duty, but without pay until a budget is passed.
There are some science-based agencies that already had funding bills passed, so I’m including their mission statements as well.
Department of Energy: "The mission of the Energy Department is to ensure America's security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions."
National Institutes of Health: "NIH's mission is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability."
Centers for Disease Control: "As the nation's health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats. To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise."