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Science shutdown

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The Guardian ran a FAQ on the US government shutdown for non-Americans:

Will the shutdown mean the entire US government grinds to a halt?

No, it’s not an anarchist’s (or libertarian’s?) dream. Essential services, such as social security and Medicare payments, will continue.
The US military service will keep operating, and Obama signed emergency legislation on Monday night to keep paying staff. But hundreds of thousands of workers at non-essential services, from Pentagon employees to rangers in national parks, will be told to take an unpaid holiday.

Nature runs news of under-appreciated effects of the US shutdown:

Siddharth Hegde, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, had lined up a trip to NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Francisco, California. Hegde is an astronomer who models atmospheres on extrasolar planets, and he was planning to study the optical properties of extremophiles — organisms that thrive in extreme environments — during his sojourn.

But then the US government shutdown hit. Hegde, who had carefully nurtured and grown his extremophiles, had to pack up his things and walk out of the Ames lab. Without someone there to oversee the cells and feed them regularly, the extremophile cultures are now dying. (The seed cultures, gathered from hostile environments such as the Atacama and Mojave deserts, remain safe in deep freeze.)

“To go from seed culture to see them grow takes some time,” says Hegde. “Some of these organisms were taking a long time to grow, and if all of these die then I have to start again and wait another month.”

Time is precious because Hegde, an Indian citizen, has a three-month US visa. When that expires at the end of November, he will have to go back to Germany and re-apply if he wants to return — even as other work there requires his attention. “It’s not a question of money right now,” he says. “It’s time. There is no substitute for time.”

Elsewhere, Nature reports:

The [National Science Foundation] has kept its three Antarctic research stations open during the initial days of the shutdown, which began on 1 October, under rules designed to protect human lives and US government property. But Lockheed Martin, the contractor that runs the NSF’s Antarctic operations, has told researchers that it will run out of money by mid-October.

At that point, the company would be forced to evacuate all but a skeleton staff from McMurdo, Amundsen–Scott and Palmer stations. And that would spell the end to this year’s research season, which normally runs from October to February.

Yet another report in Nature says that scientists are not even allowed to talk about their work:

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who were in San Francisco, California, attending a meeting on cytokines found their trips unexpectedly cut short when the government began shutting down at midnight on 1 October. As soon as the news broke, NIH officials told the travelling researchers to come back immediately “by any means necessary”.

The organizers quickly rescheduled the meeting so that all the NIH employees could give their talks before the agency officially shut down. “They told us giving a talk after that was a federal crime,” says one NIH immunologist who asked that her name not be used, as she is not authorized to speak to the press.

A possible consequence is nicely summarized here:

“The knock-on effects — undermining confidence in public funding of research and ceding scientific priority to other nations — are hugely deleterious,” says Ian Holmes, a computational biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

October 8, 2013 at 4:03 am

One Response

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  1. […] people look admiringly at the US legislature with a seemingly stable two-party system. The complete paralysis of the legislature in the US then bothers them. Now an article in BBC seems to solve this […]


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