Government shutdown, sequestration, and a struggling scientific infrastructure

by Kevin Boehnke on October 10, 2013

File:NASA Government shutdown in the United States 2013.jpgAs a budding young scientist, I am growing increasingly concerned about the relationship between science and government in the United States. One of my overarching concerns has been the lack of government funding for scientific research. I hope to work in academia or government, so this has not only affected my future career aspirations but has broader effects on the scientific community. Over the past year, sequestration slashed NIH and NSF funds for grants and reduced the budgets of government institutions that monitor and protect public health (e.g. Centers for Disease Control, Environmental Protection Agency, etc…). In academia, this has hit young scientists particularly hard; according to a recent paper, only 10% of RO1 grants (typically the grant needed to secure a faculty position) were funded, and only 14% of RO1 funding went to new scientists. Considering that academic scientists struggle through a long graduate program, low-paying post doctoral jobs, and a very stressful tenure track, dealing with a difficult funding scenario makes this career path less appealing than others.

In a further delightful turn of events, our federal government has recently been shutdown by partisan gridlock. As this happened just last week, it is difficult to tell what effect this has had/will have on scientists. However, in the days between the government shutdown and now, I’ve already noticed some problems:

  1. It is difficult to apply for funding (especially for doctoral students and candidates), as  the NSF and NIH websites for proposal submissions are no longer functioning.
  2. Public access to scientific literature is being limited by the shut down. For example, PubMed is still functioning, but the web page states: “PubMed is open, however it is being maintained with minimal staffing due to the lapse in government funding. Information will be updated to the extent possible, and the agency will attempt to respond to urgent operational inquiries.” Furthermore, there is little or no access to publicly maintained government databases, such as NHANES and census data.
  3. File:Panda-chapultepec.jpgCollaborations with government institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control are difficult to continue during the shutdown.
  4.  The panda camera has been shut down!

To gauge the effects of the government shutdown on faculty and students, I created a straw poll survey asking University of Michigan Public Health students, tenured faculty, and non-tenured faculty to rate and describe the effects of the government shutdown on current projects, future projects, and attitudes towards academia as a career path. Out of the 44 respondents, the government shutdown was rated as having a small to moderate effect (on average between 3.5 and 4.5 out of 10) on their work and attitudes towards academia. The answers I received in this survey mirrored the points I listed above (although shockingly no one mentioned the panda camera). One of the most common answers was that people at all levels were unable to submit grants or receive grant money in a timely fashion, leading to stress about research staff retention. Also, being unable to collaborate with government agencies and contact publicly maintained databases  negatively affected 20% of respondents. Below, I have excerpts of answers from the different survey groups:

Tenured Faculty:File:Doh.jpg

  • “As a tenured faculty member with an established track record, the long term effects of this shutdown will likely affect project staff and my junior colleagues more substantially.  It is possible that my primarily NIH funded research portfolio will turn more toward foundation funding at this point… this will likely affect bottom lines and my ability to dedicate time to my research…”
  • “I am increasingly more negative about federal funding for health research.  If I were an early career academic, I might have reconsidered the idea of pursuing an academic career.”
  • “knowing our future funding is jeopardized is causing great anxiety in my research staff which affects productivity and morale”

Tenure Track Faculty:

  • ” [A] large NIH grant was supposed to be reviewed last week, unknown now when it will be reviewed… other decisions are hinging on this…”
  • “[The government shutdown] makes me more uncertain about viability of relying on federal funding of any kind for research.”
  • “I think everything will be delayed and uncertain for at least a year even if gov’t comes back today.”

Doctoral Students:

  • “It demonstrates that the path toward independence can be heavily influenced by government (dys)function, even if you are preparing and doing your job.”
  • “[The government shutdown] makes going into academia seem even riskier.”

I can’t help but wonder if these recurring funding issues are affected by scientists’ lack of political participation. Case in point: in the 113th Congress of the United States of America there is a grand total of one scientist (compared to 130 businesspeople and 173 lawyers). I am not sure how to go about addressing the lack of scientific understanding in our government, but it seems to me that scientists need to get more involved. They can run for office, use their expertise as academics to help shape policy, or help to organize a voting block that demands national attention and recognition. When Richard Dawkins came to the University of Michigan last year to promote his new book, he spent an hour answering questions from students and faculty about science and politics. I attended the panel, and asked him about how to get more scientists interested in politics. Gesturing at my fellow students and colleagues, he said, “Look around you“.


  1. LaBeaud, A. Desiree, and Hannah McKeating. “The Largest Drought in American History: Funding for Science Is Drying Up.” PLoS neglected tropical diseases 7.8 (2013): e2351. DOI:10.1371/journal.pntd.0002351
  2. Jaffe, Susan. “US sequester hits health and science programmes.” The Lancet 381.9882 (2013): 1975-1976. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)61345-8
  3. Skylar, John. “Why you don’t actually f*cking love science”. Mashable. 20 Sep. 2013. Web. 6 Oct 2013.
  4. National Center for Biotechnology Institute. PubMed. Visited 5 Oct 2013.
  5. Feinberg, Ashley. “11 Tech and Science Programs Being Killed by the Government Shutdown”. Gizmodo. 5 Oct 2013. Web. 6 Oct 2013.
  6. Zuckerman, Esther. “The Day Jobs of the 113th Congress”. The Atlantic Wire. The Atlantic. 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2013.              
Jess Alper October 15, 2013 at 2:56 am

Public Service Announcement–the San Diego panda cam is still on! (And there goes the rest of your day.)

Really nice job highlighting an important effect of the shutdown. Perhaps this will mobilize researchers and academics to become more politically involved, but it could just as easily turn them off.
A few institutions that are stepping up to fill in the information gap during the shutdown:
-Oxford University Press is offering free access to its databases during the government shutdown, including resources like Oxford Reference, American National Biography Online, and the demographics database Social Explorer.
-Since the shutdown closed EBSCO’s ERIC database of journal articles and government documents on education topics, EBSCO responded by instituting a free version of the service to users until the government is open for business again (though only the abstracts and indices—not the full-text articles—will be available).

Kevin Boehnke October 17, 2013 at 11:44 am

Thanks Jess! I agree that it is certainly possible that researchers will be less motivated to get involved in politics. It may be easier to find a less burdensome position outside of academia that is less tied to government funding (as I saw in several responses in the survey). I didn’t know about those other institutions stepping in to help fill the information void; it’s nice to see them helping out! With regards to the panda cam: goodbye productivity, hello cute fuzzies!

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