Government Shutdowns Hurt Science

by Jamie Vernon | Feb 05, 2019

Sigma Xi Speaks, February 2019

Jamie L. VernonOur nation has just emerged from the longest federal government shutdown in its history. Regardless of the political circumstances that led to the appropriations gap, shutdowns have negative impacts on science in the following ways.

  1. Shutdowns often imperil research that is linked to seasonal cycles by preventing scientists who work for government research agencies or who rely on 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 for all nations.

We know that many Sigma Xi members were impacted by the recent shutdown. At least five percent of Sigma Xi members work directly in government agencies and the vast majority of Sigma Xi members rely on government funding and services to conduct their research. 

During the shutdown, many of you shared your experiences with us. One of these stories exemplified the challenges facing many of our scientific colleagues. The daughter of a Sigma Xi member, who surely followed in her father’s scientific footsteps, applied for a position on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation. An avian ecologist, she needed to relocate far from her family to conduct her research. Her work requires her to gather data on migratory birds and is highly sensitive to seasonal time points. Due to the shutdown, not only was she not being paid, but she was unable to collect the data for her study. She resorted to driving for Uber and babysitting to pay her rent instead of doing science. Like many scientists, she has made sacrifices to position herself for a research career. Sadly, her research is now in jeopardy and her future remains uncertain. 

Science is not a job that can be turned on and off like a switch. Disrupting science creates both short- and long-term problems. We need our elected officials to know this. Therefore, Sigma Xi is sending a letter to Congress and the White House to encourage them to do what is necessary to avoid another shutdown.

Please feel free to share your stories with us. We will include them in an effort to protect federally supported research and the scientists who do this work from similar interruptions in the future.


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Jamie L. Vernon, PhD
Executive Director and CEO, Sigma Xi
Publisher, American Scientist

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