Top 5 Ways The Government Shutdown Is Affecting Science

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Michael Harper for – Your Universe Online

Now entering its second week, the government shutdown has forced an awkward “define the relationship” conversation between those who write the paychecks and those who receive them. Without a clear decision on a new national budget, money to operate government services has become tight, meaning politicians have been left to define which government services are “essential” and which are not.

The government understandably believes those agencies which protect life and property to be the most essential, and is therefore allowing them to continue working. Most of the rest, however, must go home without pay and in some cases even those who remain at their desks are working without the promise of a prompt paycheck.

Shutting down the government isn’t as easy as slapping a large, red button and grinding things to a screeching halt. The larger government undertakings — the museums, the parks, the regulators — have had their doors shuttered, resulting in a ‘trickle down’ effect which has impacted those who work with or rely on these agencies. One of the more often mentioned services affected by the shutdown is the winery permit office, meaning anyone looking to open a winery in these dark days must let their aspirations ferment, as it were, a little while longer.

Other research and STEM workers have also been forced to stay home and put their work on hold for an undetermined period, including stink bug counters, telescope operators, museum directors and weather service employees. The latter belong in the group of government employees who must work without promise of a timely paycheck. In fact, let’s start here.


The powers that be have decided that issuing weather forecasts is an important part of protecting life and property, but only just so. While National Weather Service (NWS) employees have been allowed to continue studying radar and weather maps and turning this data into forecasts, they’ve had their paychecks put on hold. The government has promised to give them back pay for the time they logged during the shutdown, but with no end in sight and no real deadline in place, these workers could just as easily work another month without pay as they could another day.

There are nearly 4,000 of these employees in the US, and a few of them stationed in Anchorage, Alaska have passive-aggressively asked Democrats and Republicans to hurry up already and approve a budget. Tucked away in a 5 AM forecast from October 4 was an acrostic which spelled “Please Pay Us.”

An alternate forecast was also issued at the same time, but the cryptic message remains on the website and will continue to live there, though it will also be moved further into the backlog every time they issue new forecasts.


Another skyward-looking group, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), has also closed their doors as a part of the government shutdown. They’ve now stowed their radio telescopes and will keep them on ice to preserve them for as long as the shutdown lasts. Though a skeleton crew of maintenance workers will remain at telescope sites in New Mexico, Virginia and the Pacific Islands to protect sensitive instruments, astronomers and researchers are furloughed during this showdown.

In fact, the NRAO was supposed to be shutdown along with other government programs on October 1, but because they had some spare cash leftover from the 2013 fiscal year they were able to stay open just a few days more. Three days later, however, the reality of the shutdown hit and they were told to pack up their telescopes and go home.

NRAO Director Anthony Beasley told Science that the 90 or so employees who look after the telescopes can stay in place, but only until November. If a budget bill isn’t approved by this point, the NRAO not only risks losing data, they also risk losing very expensive very large array (VLA) telescopes.

One astronomer who uses the data gathered from these telescopes has even gone so far to say he and his colleagues could lose a year’s worth of data if the shutdown goes on long enough.


While these VLA telescopes wait to scour the heavens once more, a millions-of-years-old dinosaur fossil must wait to be assembled and viewed. It’s likely Wankel T.Rex, one of the most complete fossils ever unearthed, is accustomed to long waits. For the past several years the fossil has spent time at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. This summer the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to move the fossil from Montana to the National Museum of History in DC on October 16.

Moving a fossilized skeleton of such monstrous proportions is no easy task, of course, and with the uncertainty surrounding federal employees’ jobs combined with the threat of impending winter weather, the Corps of Engineers has decided to postpone the delivery until April. Wankel T.Rex will live in Washington for the next 50 years in the museum’s new dinosaur hall.


What really stinks about the shutdown is the potential of being overrun by our insect overlords. The brown marmorated stink bug, understandably, has no natural predator in the US and can wreak havoc on crops in mid-Atlantic states. What’s more, when the temperatures drop, as they’re soon expected to do, the stink bugs try to move inside, causing malodorous infestations among homeowners.

In September the USDA began asking homeowners from all over to look for stinkbugs on the side of their houses, count them, and submit the numbers to a website set up specifically to source the study. Yet when politicians failed to agree on a budget bill last week, the lead researcher responsible for the Great Stink Bug Count was furloughed, their research suspended.


Finally, while the shutdown has forced the government and members of the science world to sit down and discuss their relationship, it’s also caused some to strike out on their own and find their own kind of love.

Should the government stalemate continue through this week, funds for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or WIC, could run dry. This would leave nine million babies and their mothers without supplemental money to buy dinner. It may also be the driving factor behind a notable increase in the number of women who have signed up for dating sites like and – essentially dating sites for ‘sugar daddies.’

According to Jennifer Gwynn, the public relations manager for, the only link she can make between a typically slow period for signups and this sudden increase is the government shutdown.

“For us to peak at the end of the month in September, and this week in general, it makes no sense for us to have a growth like this. Half of the new members are single moms, so we’re thinking that it’s tied directly to the government shutdown, since programs like WIC … that help more than 9 million moms, have been stalled. It would make no sense for growth otherwise,” said Gwynn in an interview with NPR.