Shutdown Threatens to Scuttle U.S. Oceanographic Research

Midway into the second week of the government shutdown, you may have seen reports on the impact that the shutdown is having on scientific research: NASA shut down on its 55th birthday; the loss of a year of radio telescope data, at the cost of a half-million dollars; reports that the U.S. may cancel an entire season of Antarctic research; climate science and medical research projects shut down; scientific meetings disrupted. But it is unlikely that you have heard about the even deeper impacts that are occurring behind the scenes.

I'm an oceanographer. My job is to understand the physics of the ocean currents and the role the ocean plays in the climate system. While I am not personally impacted by the shutdown, many people in my line of work are. I wrote about the situation in this essay last week and decided to look into it further.

In the past thirty-six hours, I've spoken to three dozen of my colleagues around the world. Here are some of the things I heard repeatedly: experiments jeopardized; progress on important datasets held up; educational opportunities lost; critical data streams left untended; months or years of planning wasted; international commitments at risk; careers threatened; frustration levels at the boiling point; second thoughts about working as a researcher for the federal government; and doubts about the future of oceanographic research in this country.

The potential consequences of the shutdown are vast, not to mention the possibility of a federal default. The issues I am raising here are only one small part. Nevertheless, there is a feeling in the community that scientific research in this country is at a crossroads, and you -- the American people -- deserve to be informed.

Oceanography is a small field, with perhaps one or two thousand researchers in the country engaged in the study of ocean physics. However, it is an essential branch of climate science. We are not talking just about little rubber duckies. We are talking about predicting the paths of hurricanes, understanding sea level rise, monitoring the ecosystems surrounding America's fisheries, researching severe storms and forecasting patterns of precipitation and drought. We are talking about climate change as a threat to national security.

These are activities for which physical oceanographers, together with our colleagues in atmospheric science and related fields, are absolutely critical. As a consequence of the deadlock in Washington, several major research laboratories operated by the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are shut down. NOAA is the government agency responsible for understanding and monitoring the state of the ocean and atmosphere. NASA is also heavily involved in these activities, because NASA's satellites are some of the primary tools we have for observing the oceans and the state of the climate system.

Between these two agencies, the scientists who are currently furloughed represent a significant fraction of the oceanographic and climate expertise in this country, and indeed in the world. This has had far-reaching repercussions. On top of this, the staff of the National Science Foundation, and other agencies that fund and support our research, have also been furloughed, snarling communication lines and damaging national and international collaborations.

It's important to understand that not only are furloughed federal researchers barred from their own laboratories, they are actually prohibited from working at all. Due to something called the Antideficiency Act, it could be considered a crime for a government employee to do something as simple as show up for a Skype call. As this government site makes clear, violation of the Antideficiency Act could result in being fired, fines, or even imprisonment. Furloughed scientists cannot continue their work, even if they want to.

Since I let my colleagues know I was working on this piece, stories of disruption and frustration have been pouring in. You can hear some of those stories here. But the cost of the shutdown is not measured in the dollar value of experiments that can no longer be carried out, or in terms of data that is being lost. The shutdown is taking a heavy toll on one of our country's most valuable resources: the researchers themselves.

The shutdown is not happening in isolation. Before the shutdown, there was the sequester; and before the sequester, there were many years of declining funding rates and diminishing opportunities. Scientists I spoke to this week are now at their wit's end, worn down by what they see as an increasingly difficult environment for scientific research, and doubtful of the prospects for the future.

Rather than an isolated event, many researchers in my field see the shutdown as part of a continuing pattern, and perhaps, as a nail in a coffin. If my sample is at all representative, many of those affected by the furlough are using this time to re-think their career paths, to the great detriment of scientific research in our country. Those unaffected, myself included, are also taking heed. The shutdown sends a clear, if unintended, message to scientists. No matter who is at fault, it cannot be seen as the action of a country that is sincerely eager and able to cultivate scientific research.

And compared with the magnitude of what our country is currently facing, that is a minor problem.

Note: You don't have to take my word on the impact the shutdown is having on oceanography. In a related piece, you can hear it from the scientists themselves.