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Environment & Energy Report

Climate Studies, Research Feel Lingering Aftermath of Shutdown

Feb. 12, 2019, 12:01 PM

Scientific monitoring in the Pacific Ocean, using buoys to take seawater temperatures, screeched to a halt when the government recently shut down for 35 days.

But those efforts to monitor El Nino, the warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean that affects global weather patterns, are just some of the shutdown’s impacts on science that Kevin Trenberth describes.

“Things that broke did not get fixed,” Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Bloomberg Environment. “Computer models did not get updated. Websites shut down and affected the flow of information to researchers. The 2018 announcement of the global temperatures was delayed. And so forth.”

Other affected scientific work includes earthquake monitoring and research at the U.S. Geological Survey and studies focused on wildlife, forestry, agriculture, and other areas at the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, and other agencies.

Even though lawmakers reached an agreement in principle late Feb. 11 to avoid a second shutdown, it could take weeks to fully assess how the recent 35-day government shutdown affected research at myriad federal agencies, scientists and others say.

The shutdown “impacted all of NASA science,” and increased the costs of NASA missions because of the “ramp-down and ramp-up of operations,” according to a presentation shown at a NASA town hall webinar Feb. 7 by NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen.

NASA’s review of research grant proposals were suspended and delayed, and payment for already-funded research grants were temporarily suspended, Zurbuchen said.

Setbacks Escalate

Any research setbacks at NOAA and elsewhere could escalate if a deal to keep funding the government after Feb. 15 falls apart or is vetoed by President Donald Trump, which would again shut down many federal agencies.

Although scientists and forecasters at the National Weather Service were able to carry about the agency’s mission during the January shutdown, “if it happens again, I’ll tell you that people are pretty much fed up,” said Dan Sobien, national president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization.

“They are tired of being pawns in political games, and I have no idea how people are going to respond to that,” Sobien said.

Current and former agency officials and scientists described shutdown impacts on research that varied by agency—impacts that officials are just beginning to understand.

“Some agencies are asking for a rapid response about most obvious and big impacts, and also gathering more granular information on a more comprehensive review that will undoubtedly take weeks,” said Jane Lubchenco, an ocean ecologist at Oregon State University and NOAA administrator from 2009 to 2013 under President Barack Obama.

Officials at the USGS, a federal agency almost exclusively dedicated to scientific research, still don’t fully understand how the shutdown affected its work, said spokeswoman Karen Armstrong.

“What we can say, generally, is that because USGS scientists were prevented from conducting ongoing research during the shutdown, numerous projects were delayed,” Armstrong said. “Such delays can particularly affect time-sensitive studies. Acquisitions, grants and the ability to hire, key elements in support of conducting the science, were also impacted.”

Trenberth said his agency, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, wasn’t directly affected by the shutdown. But its scientists work with researchers at NOAA and other federal agencies that were closed and may shut down again if a spending deal isn’t reached.

“There has been, of course, a major impact on [the National Science Foundation], NOAA and NASA on all grant decisions to panels to help agencies decide who to fund. So the flow of funds is severely disrupted,” Trenberth said.

NOAA issued a statement saying the agency is currently assessing how the shutdown affected its operations and had no further information to share.

NASA Science

Reviews of NASA scientific grant proposals were suspended during the shutdown, according to Zurbuchen’s presentation.

But the shutdown had little immediate effect on NASA’s earth sciences research at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, Gavin Schmidt, GISS lab chief, said.

“Some of our joint activities with NOAA were impacted, and obviously we didn’t do any public outreach work,” Schmidt said. “For the civil servants, their work was most impacted, but we are hopeful that we’ll be able to catch up over the next couple of months.”

Longer term, delays in research proposal submission deadlines might affect the institute’s funding for the next fiscal year, Schmidt said.

Park Service Studies

The shutdown “introduced a variety of disruptions” to operations and scientific work at the National Park Service, Karen Trevino, chief of the NPS Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division in Fort Collins, Colo., said.

The National Park Service conducts a wide range of scientific research across millions of acres of parkland in the U.S. focusing on climate change, wildlife, land use, light pollution, archaeology, and much more.

The service is unaware of scientific projects that suffered irreparable impacts during the shutdown, but park service staff are still evaluating the situation, Trevino said.

Brain Drain

Longer term, it’s the scientists themselves who are most affected by record-breaking and repeated government shutdowns that impede federally sponsored scientific research, said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“It’s important to remember the impacts don’t stop just when the shutdown stops,” Goldman said.

Government scientists feel demoralized when their work is undermined by lack of funding and government shutdowns, and they’re less likely to remain in the public sector, Goldman said.

“The talent drain that shutdowns contribute to worries me greatly,” agreed Kathryn Sullivan, a former NASA astronaut who served as NOAA director during the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017. “We must not forget the indirect effects on small companies, universities and the talents, especially the scientific and technological talents that are so needed in public service, whether they carry the government badge or corporate badge.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bobby Magill at bmagill@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at ghenderson@bloombergenvironment.com; Susan Bruninga at sbruninga@bloombergenvironment.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergenvironment.com