How the U.S. Government Shutdown Could Impact Science

When Congress can't agree on a budget, scientific research and environmental cleanup often pays the price.

Congress was not able to come up with a deal to approve a budget for federal agencies, leading the U.S. government to shut down. Much of the staff of U.S. science and environmental agencies could be hit with furloughs, with possible lost pay.

Would government research continue? How would clinical trials be treated? What happens to Superfund? Here's a quick guide to how science may be affected by a possible shutdown, gleaned from U.S. government contingency plans, recent media reports, and archived stories from the 2013 shutdown.

(Opinion: Shutting down the government undercuts the basic narrative of America.)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC would maintain some of its critical staffing, and some of its programs—such as PEPFAR, its global anti-AIDS initiative—receive funding outside of the appropriations process, meaning they would carry on as normal.

However, the CDC would furlough more than 60 percent of its workforce, according to an HHS estimate and recent Washington Post report. The remaining staff wouldn't be able to support the CDC's annual seasonal flu program—amid one of the roughest flus in recent memory—or maintain the agency's outbreak detection or technical assistance functions.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

More than 94 percent of the EPA's workforce would be placed on enforced leave during a government shutdown, according to a December 2017 contingency plan drafted by the agency. However, Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency had enough funds to operate for a week. After that, most activities would grind to a halt, with exceptions.

Staffers are allowed to maintain scientific instruments, test animals, and controlled environments such as freezers during a shutdown. In addition, the EPA says it will maintain Superfund projects that “would pose an imminent threat to human life,” such as projects that prevent the imminent contamination of drinking water.

But for many Superfund sites, the health risks are more chronic in nature—meaning that cleanup crews at many toxic waste sites would be furloughed during a shutdown. During the 2013 shutdown, cleanup efforts were halted at 505 Superfund sites across 47 states, the EPA said in a statement to the Huffington Post at the time.

NASA

The U.S. space agency estimates that of its roughly 17,500 employees, more than 85 percent would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. Some full-time, part-time, and on-call employees, however, would maintain the safety and security of NASA equipment and facilities—including the International Space Station. NASA policy holds that its astronauts aboard the ISS, as well as their support staff on the ground, are still on the job.

However, NASA instructors would not be at work in schools, all tours and visits to NASA facilities would be canceled, and NASA's sprawling outreach efforts—including its website—would go quiet in the event of a government shutdown.

National Institutes of Health (NIH)

Department of Health and Human Services guidelines mandate that the NIH could not take on new patients in clinical trials, unless NIH Director Francis Collins deems it medically necessary. In 2013, the Washington Post reported that on average, the 2013 shutdown prevented roughly 200 people—including 30 children—from joining clinical trials each week.

The institutes' massive grant apparatus—which gives billions of dollars in grants to researchers across the country—would also come to a screeching halt. New grant applications wouldn't be processed, and widely used databases maintained by the NIH would not accept new data submissions. Nature reported that nearly three fourths of the NIH's staff were placed on leave during the 2013 shutdown. At the time, some NIH researchers were forced to freeze in-progress experiments.

National Park Service

According to a contingency plan crafted in September 2017, the National Park Service would furlough nearly seven out of eight employees during a shutdown. Within four days, the NPS says that it would wind down activities “except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

Recent reports indicate that the Trump administration is considering permitting some access to national parks in the event of a government shutdown. In mulling this over, the Trump administration is evidently trying to avoid the public outrage and political damage that park closures brought during the 2013 shutdown.

National Science Foundation (NSF)

The NSF, which employs approximately 2,000 people, would cease work almost entirely in the event of a government shutdown. In a November 2017 contingency plan, the NSF estimates that no more than 30 employees would be exempted from the furlough to “protect life and property.” These staff include members of the NSF's Office of Polar Programs, who provide support to researchers in the Arctic and Antarctic.

NSF-funded researchers could continue to use previously awarded grants, assuming that the NSF has already passed along funds. During a shutdown, though, the NSF would not issue new grants or new payments.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that of NOAA's 11,400 employees, some 54 percent would be placed on enforced leave during a shutdown. Of the 5,300 NOAA employees exempted from furloughs, the vast majority are deemed necessary to protect life and property.

In a shutdown, NOAA and other agencies under the Department of Commerce would forecast and monitor the weather and climate, manage fisheries, continue monitoring the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and maintain critical nautical charts. However, most NOAA research would be shuttered, other than the real-time modeling used to track hurricanes and chart airplane flight paths.

U.S. Geological Survey

The nation's major Earth sciences bureau would shudder to a halt in the event of a government shutdown, according to its September 2017 contingency plan. Nearly all of its roughly 8,500 employees would be placed on enforced leave, any scheduled meetings or events would be canceled, and most IT operations would be shut down.

Exempted staff include those who monitor and may have to respond to natural disasters such as earthquakes. In addition, the USGS would run a skeleton crew to maintain the LandSat satellite network.

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