Sigma Xi to Government Leaders: Avoid Another Disruption to Research

March 05, 2019

In letters sent on March 4, Sigma Xi Executive Director Jamie Vernon and Sigma Xi President Joel Primack urged leaders in the United States Congress and President Donald Trump to avoid any actions that would result in future federal funding lapses for scientific research, such as another government shutdown, and to seek ways to protect research from such disruptions. Stories of how the shutdown affected Sigma Xi members accompanied the letters. 

Below is the text of the letter. 


March 04, 2019

Senator Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader 
U.S. Senate 

Senator Charles Schumer
Senate Minority Leader
U.S. Senate

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House 
U.S. House of Representatives   

Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy
Republican Leader
U.S. House of Representatives

Dear Congressional Leaders:

On behalf of the Board of Directors and members of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society, we would like to thank you for taking action on February 14, 2019, to reach a funding agreement and avoid another government shutdown.  We represent distinguished researchers, engineers, technologists, entrepreneurs, educators, and students from across the United States who rely on a functional federal government to conduct the critical work of scientific discovery, technology development, and education that contributes to American economic competitiveness and national security.  

The research enterprise funded and supported by the United States government for decades has proven to be an engine of technological advancement, making it possible for this nation to achieve peace, strength, and prosperity through innovation. It would be impossible to replicate the nation’s prolonged economic growth and scientific/technological leadership on the world stage without the historical investments made by Congress to support this enterprise.  Sigma Xi has been a reliable partner in these endeavors since its founding in 1886 by promoting the ethical conduct of research and building a community of scientists and engineers committed to the expanding role of science in society.

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the NASA Apollo 11 spaceflight that transported Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the Moon.  This mission was the culmination of Project Apollo, initiated by President John F. Kennedy, to demonstrate the nation’s technological capability. It required nearly a decade of sustained funding and services from the government to support the men and women who dedicated their lives to winning the space race.   

Today the nation faces wide-ranging technological challenges of comparable significance—from the opioid addiction epidemic to harnessing artificial intelligence.  A well-trained, diverse, and supported scientific workforce is critical to international leadership on these issues.  The exceptional individuals who pursue the solutions to these problems understand the need to deliver positive outcomes for the country. However, we expect the government to provide the stability necessary to complete this work.  Disruptions and delays cost researchers and the nation valuable time and resources while jeopardizing our scientific leadership on the global stage.

Shutdowns create countless complications that inhibit progress toward our goals. During the most recent shutdown, we asked our members to share how the interruption was affecting them. We learned that all levels of research and education were affected—from high school students to senior scientists. The short term and long term impacts on science occur in the following ways:

  1. Shutdowns often imperil time-sensitive research by preventing scientists who work for government research agencies or are waiting for government funding to collect data during the closure.

  2. Nongovernmental research institutions and contractors that rely on services from federal agencies find themselves unable to operate effectively or at all.

  3. Government instability drives good scientists and engineers away from the federally supported research enterprise, where basic and applied sciences contribute to global economic competitiveness.

We have attached a sample of these stories to this message. We believe these personal accounts provide just a glimpse of the extensive damages and losses incurred due to the shutdown. 

We write to urge you to avoid any actions that would result in future federal funding lapses. For the good of the nation and the health of the research enterprise, we encourage you to seek ways to protect scientific research from such disruptions. We commit to continuing to serve as a reliable partner to you and the nation in the promotion of, and support for, a strong United States research enterprise. 


Jamie Vernon signature

Jamie L. Vernon
Executive Director, Sigma Xi

 Joel Primack signature

Joel Primack
President, Sigma Xi

Attachment: Shutdown stories provided by Sigma Xi members

Shutdown Stories

Martin Abraham
Professor, Civil/Environmental & Chemical Engineering
Youngstown State University

My story is really my daughter’s story. She is a 28-year-old avian ecologist, who has been struggling for several years to string together a series of temporary positions from which to develop her science career. In September, she reconnected with a researcher in Hawaii who had just received an NSF award for a two-year study, funded through the USGS. She would be team leader and have some defined period of work. She accepted the position and began working, moving to Hawaii at the end of November. She shipped her car, rented an apartment, bought furniture and settled down, all on the promise of a paycheck. Then the shutdown occurs. No paycheck and no savings since she’s still starting out and spent what little she had in order to make the move to Hawaii. Now this young science researcher is driving for Uber and babysitting so she can pay her rent and make her car payment, instead of doing science. Depending on how long [the shutdown] drags on, the whole study may be lost, since the birds migrate whether the government is open or not. And if that happens, there’s no way to know if the job will be available to her should the government reopen. The temporary loss to her is the immediate challenge, but the longer term issue will be that we are driving away a generation of young scientists.

Anonymous Member
PhD Student
Arizona State University

I am an international PhD student, in the final stages of my program and was, prior to the shutdown, preparing to go to my field site to carry out my data collection.

The shutdown has meant that my dissertation field work planning has had to be drastically changed, and timelines significantly altered. I am still in limbo as far as securing my main dissertation funding due to the impact this shutdown has had on the National Science Foundation. I can only cross my fingers and hope that it will be a blip on the horizon, and my work will simply be delayed. Worst case, my funding is lost completely—destroying all the work I have been striving towards throughout my time as a PhD student.

Stephanie Tristram-Nagle, Ph.D.
Research Professor, Biological Physics
Physics Department, Carnegie Mellon University

I have a collaborator at the National Institute of Standards and Technology who takes data for me.  We had beamtime scheduled for January and the reactor was shut down.  My colleague could not even reach his computers remotely in the reactor building, so he could not finish his data analysis.  I thought that was particularly onerous, because even without a beam, the scientists there should be able to access their computers with all their data on them!  I have now supplied him with new samples, and hopefully he can run them. 

Stefan T. Jaronski, PhD
aka The BugDoc, Retired
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service

I am, was, a research entomologist, with USDA Agricultural Research Service. “Was” because I finally got to retire January 28 when the government reopened.  I was supposed to retire January 18. One can't retire from the government if the government is closed.

More importantly the shutdown ruined my last major experiment before retirement, one which started in late October. It would have been the critical third replicate of a study determining if colonization of wheat by certain fungi resulted in later decrease of susceptibility to Fusarium head blight. The critical data collection period was December 18–January 11, requiring daily examination of plants (several hundred) and scoring the extent of Fusarium infection in the heads. Lab closure prevented that data from being collected; the few exempted employees did not have the skill to record my data, and I was not allowed in. So now, I am retired, my technicians reassigned, and am unable to complete that research.  

Janet Slovin
Research Plant Physiologist
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service

I have an excellent undergraduate student who works about 10 hours per week in my lab during the semester, and 30 to 40 hours per week when he does not have classes.  He should have gotten paid for 40 hours per week during the furlough (his intercession), but because the proper paperwork could not be submitted to change from 10 hours to 40 (we were shut down); he will not be getting money he counted on for school.  

This is a student who will continue on to graduate school, but I doubt that he will be interested in working in a U.S. government lab after this experience.  

Bryan Wang
The Harker School in San Jose

My name is Bryan Wang, and I am a high school junior who was inducted into Sigma Xi in 2018 after winning the Student Poster Competition. This is my story concerning the government shutdown. 

Science is central to my life: both my parents pursued it, it's always been my favorite subject, and I know I want to pursue a career related to science. Last summer, I interned at the University of California Santa Cruz Astrophysics Department under professor Joel Primack and graduate student Clayton Strawn. Not only was the project that I worked on reliant on the use of the Department of Energy's National Energy Research Scientific Computer Center supercomputers, but the summer research program for high schoolers which I was doing was partly funded by the National Science Foundation. When I presented my work at the 233rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle in January 2019, I was extremely disheartened to find that multiple meetings I had looked forward to, including those hosted by NASA, were canceled.

More About Sigma Xi: Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society is the world’s largest multidisciplinary honor society for scientists and engineers. Its mission is to enhance the health of the research enterprise, foster integrity in science and engineering, and promote the public understanding of science for the purpose of improving the human condition. Sigma Xi chapters can be found at colleges and universities, government laboratories, and industry research centers around the world. More than 200 Nobel Prize winners have been members. The Society is based in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. On Twitter: @SigmaXiSociety