How is the government shutdown affecting me? Well, it hasn’t… yet. But even if this shutdown is over in the next few days, its impacts will ripple through American scientific research and our innovation-dependent economy for years to come.
No, I have not been furloughed. I am free to keep doing my research since I work in a university lab which are usually state or private institutions. However I, like the vast majority of American scientists (and for that matter most scientists world-wide), work with federal grant money. We scientists have to compete incredibly hard to get those grants, and the process is long and arduous. On October 1st, the main grant funding departments were shut down including the National Institute of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF). It takes a lot of work for them to sift through the thousands of brilliant grant applications to find the absolutely most brilliant and promising ones. Since many steps of this process need to be planned months in advance, and are not easily rescheduled, their operations will be severely delayed.
My advisor (my boss, the head of the lab) is a new professor, and she trying to get her first major grant. You basically can’t keep running a lab without one. Just before the shutdown she was told by the NIH that her application scored exceptionally well, and will most likely get funded. However, I’ve chatted with others, one of whom was in the exact same situation during the previous shutdown back in the 90’s, which only lasted 3 weeks. Yes, they were finally awarded the promised funding, but it was 16 months late. Also, on a more personal level, I have no idea what will happen with the one small grant I was planning to apply to as a PhD student. I’ll still apply, but those kind of delays could mean that I graduate too soon to use the funding, even if they awarded it to me. This spotty funding is problematic when you want to, say, plan and then actually accomplish interesting experiments. In short, it makes it very hard to do our jobs.
Therein lies the biggest problem--the uncertainty. We just don’t know what will happen in the near or distant future, so we don’t know how we should be using our funds most effectively. For some scientists, the consequences of the shutdown are immediate. NIH scientists are now indefinitely barred from entering their laboratories while field researchers may be forced to delay or even skip their next data gathering expeditions. There are already hundreds of personal accounts of how the shutdown will affect scientists and their work1.
Even worse is the fact that science in America is actually taking a double-hit: the effects of the shutdown will occur on top of the fact that members of congress have successfully pushed to slash funding for the NIH and NSA, which directly translates fewer and smaller grants given to researchers. These budgets used to grow a little every year, or at least track inflation, helping America stay on top of health technology and innovation. But the budget was recently reduced this year by 5%, and some members of congress are proposing for a further 10% cut. It is scary times to be a scientist in training. I have no idea where funding levels will be when I try to start my own lab in a few years. It is already competitive out there, but the number of positions will probably shrink even further.
I just want to get everyones’ head on straight about this; the political games congress is playing will affect us all for years to come, from stunting the careers of young scientists, to dulling America’s scientific, technological and economic edge.
So, how is the government shutdown affecting you?
TL/DR: The shutdown is blowing it for American science for years to come.
-Ryan G. Natan, 4th year PhD candidate in the Neuroscience Graduate Group
Ryan works in UPenn’s Laboratory of Auditory Coding studying how the auditory cortex helps us notice changes in sounds we hear and how we get used to repetitive sounds.