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The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Career Fair (see page 3 for ASA’s participation) was one of the last public engagement programs the National Science Foundation (NSF) participated in prior to the October 1, 2013, federal government shutdown, which lasted 16 days. While this STEM Career Fair occurred in a suburban Washington, DC, shopping mall with thousands of eager children participating, events like this occur throughout the country most weekends of the year. Federal agencies like the U.S. Census Bureau, NASA, NOAA, Department of Energy, EPA, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsor and participate in these events regularly to help the public, especially younger students and teens, gain an appreciation for science and a better understanding of the numerous science careers available to them. Students may be inspired by these events and among them are our nation’s future innovators.
Because of the federal government shutdown, these worthwhile events were diminished in scope and impact and even cancelled. Will some children choose a different career path because they were not exposed to science outside the classroom or could not sustain their initial interest?
During the shutdown, students from elementary school to graduate school were unable to use the latest online and widely accessed government data because of the shutdown. Elementary school children (including one of our own ASA staff kids) were unable to access NOAA maps as they researched our world’s oceans; college courses and class projects that examined data collection saw their assignments altered because of unavailable resources (“Government Shutdown Reaches into the Classroom,” October 4, 2013, The Chronicle of Higher Education); and, middle school-age children saw class trips to Washington, DC, cancelled because our National Mall, Smithsonian Museums, and historic monuments were closed and barricaded.
Obviously, students were not the only ones hurt from the government shutdown, but the younger among them are newer to science and politics. ASA members and other researchers faced significant difficulties as well. With only 40 federal employees at the Census Bureau headquarters, the Bureau’s work stopped. Sociologists and other data users across the country could not access the Census Bureau’s demographic and socioeconomic data. Federal data-collection was halted, including the American Community Survey (ACS) and Current Population Survey (CPS), which means that unemployment and other labor force reports will be delayed or cancelled. Analysis for widely used data products, including ACS estimates for 2012, was put on hold, delaying the availability of this information for months. The resulting gaps in social data and other scientific data (e.g., Antarctic research because the U.S. scientists were stuck in budget limbo) will haunt scientists for a very long time. According to an article in Politico, “’[T]hese data, the observations are all just gone forever. We never get them back,’ said Hugh Ducklow, an oceanographer and professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.”1
Research proposals at NSF, NIH, and other agencies were not examined, funded, or otherwise supported. NIH, for instance, operated with over 70 percent of its employees furloughed. The approximately 30 percent of employees who continued to work at NIH maintained intramural experiments, cared for patients, provided security and other tasks. NSF had even fewer staff on hand. Because of this, research money did not make its way to investigators—closing facilities and putting research on hold.
The shutdown took a personal toll on the more than 800,000 furloughed employees. While federal employees will receive retroactive pay, they did not receive full paychecks until after the shutdown ended. The many more federal contractors are unlikely to see any retroactive pay. Federal employees scrambled to find money to pay mortgages, college tuition, and other debts. The national newspapers reported on the many workers who dipped into their retirement or leveraged their home equity to cover expenses, or missed a rent payment and had to take their kids and move in with parents. The press also reported on those Americans who believe the shutdown had no negative consequences. I guess these folks didn’t notice that preparation for the flu season by the Centers for Disease Control is significantly behind schedule; many die from the flu each year in the United States, especially children and the elderly.
In addition to financial stress, growing negative morale among federal employees strengthened. Having someone identify your work as “non-essential,” not knowing when you will be returning to work, and being used as a pawn in a political game weighed heavily on federal employees. In addition, when employees went back to work they faced more than two weeks of backlogged projects and work in their inboxes. The spirit of pride at serving your country through federal service—civil service, appointed or elected—is eroding so quickly one wonders who will fill these vital roles on behalf of our nation in the coming years. I know this personally; I and many of my professional colleagues have served one or more of these roles.
It is now apparent that shutting the federal government (and holding the debt default hostage) was an attempt to achieve a narrow political objective. This type of governing is short-sighted and deeply damaging, especially to long-term national commitments such as our investment in science. This past several weeks has done damage, some of which is not repairable, but it is also a scary precedent.
Shutting down the nation’s government by a few elected leaders is difficult to reconcile with a modern democratic society. When they caused the shutdown, they failed to act in the best interest of our nation and the American people.
The federal government shutdown affected all of us. At first the shutdown did not appear to have a lasting negative impact, but its ripples soon became waves. Share your story with us so that we can help Congress understand that forcing a shutdown of the government is not an appropriate legislative choice. Comment on our Facebook page, via Twitter at @ASAnews, or via email at email@example.com.
Sally T. Hillsman is the Executive Officer of ASA. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.