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    Government shutdown takes toll on science as data goes uncollected

    Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials left a meeting the partial government shutdown.
    Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
    Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials left a meeting the partial government shutdown.

    One of the first sessions of the American Meteorological Society’s annual conference in Phoenix this weekend seemed like just the sort to attract plenty of government scientists: “Building Resilience to Extreme Political Weather: Advice for Unpredictable Times.”

    But the conference, where more than 700 federal employees had been expected, will have few federal scientists in attendance. Many are barred from participating during the partial government shutdown, just one of the numerous consequences for the science community during the capital’s latest spending standoff.

    “It’s a huge opportunity lost,” said Daniel A. Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization and a forecaster in the agency’s office near Tampa, Fla.


    The shutdown, now in its third week, has emptied some laboratories across the country, forced scientists from the field, upended important scientific conferences, imperiled the flow of grant money, and disrupted careful planning for future studies, some of which are time-sensitive.

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    In Washington on Saturday, congressional aides met with White House officials under the leadership of Vice President Mike Pence to discuss a resolution to the shutdown. Pence described the session as ‘‘productive’’ on Twitter, although no breakthrough was reached. The White House aides and Democratic and Republican staffers planned to return to the talks on Sunday.

    Meanwhile, the science is on hold. “We’re not collecting data,” said Leland S. Stone, an area vice president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents many federal scientists. “And we’re not analyzing the data and we’re not able to make the advances that we’re paid to do.”

    Stone, who works at a NASA center in California and studies how humans perform in challenging conditions, added: “Most taxpayers don’t want to pay taxes and not get the progress they’re paying for. Is it the end of the universe? Is it the end of America as we know it? No. But is it pointless? Is it avoidable?”

    The impasse, current and former officials said, will eventually show in shutdown-size gaps in data that scientists often collect across generations. Time-sensitive observations, which are impossible to recover or recreate, are going unseen and unrecorded.


    “It’s not just the gap,” said Sally Jewell, who was secretary of the interior during the 16-day shutdown in 2013. “It’s the ability to correlate that with a broader picture of what’s happening environmentally and ecologically. It really does mess things up.”

    The current shutdown has not affected every part of the government’s sprawling science apparatus because some agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, were entirely or mostly funded through other legislation. The Department of Energy, which runs the nation’s nuclear laboratories, is similarly unaffected.

    But many other agencies have closed or slowed down. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, has furloughed many workers. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s offices are mostly empty, and the National Park Service has few employees on the job. Almost all employees at the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA have been furloughed.

    Some scientific work has continued at agencies that were otherwise mostly closed. NASA, for instance, is still undertaking its “tracking, operation, and support” of the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s shutdown contingency plan called for some animal caretakers to report for work.

    But rank-and-file scientists said the shutdown was exacting a gradual toll that might not be fully realized for several years, affecting research, morale, and, perhaps, the recruitment of prospective employees.


    Current and former government scientists expressed concerns about the fates of environmental maintenance efforts, like prescribed burns that help prime habitats and prevent wildfires, and research projects, such as wildlife counts, that had been planned from oceans to tundras. They also worried about any curtailing of monitoring efforts for diseases.

    “A shutdown has these cascading effects on the scientific work of the organization,” said Daniel M. Ashe, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’re hard to foresee or predict right now, but they’re crippling, really, and they affect the organization not for three or four weeks, but for the rest of the year because of all of this complex orchestration of field work.”