9 October 2013

The Government Shutdown and You

Josh Shiode

The federal government remains shut down as the two chambers of Congress failed to reach an agreement on funding the government as we move into fiscal year 2014. Now on the ninth day of the shutdown, we are continuing to sort out its effects on our astronomical sciences. And we are asking you for your stories, which we will collect for a letter to Congressional leaders.

We cannot claim to know all the impacts yet, but here's a snapshot of what we do know so far:

  • NASA has sent 98% of its employees, more than 17,700 people, home without pay or access to their work.
  • The NSF has furloughed 2,000 of its employees, which is 99% of its workforce, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science has drawn its federal staff down to single digits at nearly all sites. CORRECTION (7 Oct., 12:50 pm EDT): The Department of Energy's Office of Science continues to operate at near normal levels until available balances are exhausted.
  • Contractor-operated NASA, NSF, and DOE facilities (including JPL, APL, STScI, and the national observatories and labs), on the other hand, are continuing near regular operations in the near term. This includes paying salaries to scientists and support staff and continuing ongoing mission operations for Curiosity on Mars and the Hubble Space Telescope, for example. However, these facilities may have to draw down staff and operations if this budget battle draws on for multiple weeks.
  • All public-facing elements of NASA have gone dark or will not be maintained.
  • Preparations for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, which has a 20-day launch window in mid-November and then not again for 26 months, have ceased during the work stoppage at Kennedy Space Center. UPDATE (3 Oct., 8:00 pm EDT): Happily, NASA has determined that ensuring MAVEN's successful, on-time launch is crucial to ongoing operations on Mars, including the Curiosity rover, and will be excepted from the shutdown.
  • The scientific heart of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM), will stay cooled to testing conditions, but tests are postponed during the shutdown. In the event of a protracted shutdown (longer than about 2 weeks), ISIM may have to be warmed up, which could result in a two-month delay for this critical project milestone.
  • "Payments will not be made" by NSF during the shutdown. Work can continue with already disbursed funds, but no extensions, exceptions, or new disbursements (e.g., grant renewals) will be processed until the government reopens. You should contact your local administration if you are unsure whether your grant funds will be accessible during the shutdown.
  • NSF's grant review system will grind to a halt. The Fastlane system for processing grant applications will be down, preventing new grant submissions. Deadlines that occur during the shutdown will be postponed to dates that will be determined once NSF is allowed to open back up. All grant review panels will be postponed.
  • Both the National Radio and Optical Astronomy Observatories (NRAO and NOAO), operated by independent organizations on behalf of NSF, will continue near-normal operations through next week. However, reports from NRAO indicate that a shutdown longer than 10 days will result in furloughs for nearly all staff. Similar conditions likely apply for NOAO in the event of a prolonged shutdown. UPDATE (4 Oct., 12:15 pm EDT): Multiple sources have now confirmed that NRAO is suspending all observations on VLA, VLBA and GBT and furloughing most of its employees at 5:00 pm today. UPDATE (9 Oct., 12:00 pm EDT): In an email, the NOAO director announced that "furloughs […] and reduced scientific operations on Kitt Peak" would set in after Friday 18 October if the shutdown continues past that date. Meanwhile, they believe that operations in Chile can continue for "several weeks into November." The email directs users to send questions on Kitt Peak to Dr. Lori Allen and on operations in Chile to Dr. Nicole van der Bliek.
  • Federal employees (other than those excepted from furloughs) are forbidden from traveling during the shutdown, meaning NASA researchers would not be able to attend next week's AAS Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Denver if the shutdown continues.
  • The Smithsonian has furloughed about 84% of its employees during the shutdown. While the majority of the coverage focuses on the shutdown's effect on museums and the National Zoo, this also affects researchers at Smithsonian Research Centers. John Johnson at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has a blog post on the effect on the CfA in particular.

Most recently in the shutdown saga, the House has been pushing piecemeal spending bills that narrowly address particular functions of the federal government deemed most important. As of October 3rd, only one of these narrow resolutions has been signed into law, a resolution that maintains most military pay. Three others passed in the House during yesterday's activities. Though the agencies that support the astronomical sciences might not fall to the bottom of such a list of government priorities, they are also unlikely to be found near the top. Senate Democrats and the President have flatly rejected this piecemeal approach to re-opening the government (with the exception of military pay).

As I said at the outset, these are not all the impacts. We will continue to gather more information and update you as it comes in, but we'd also like to hear from you as we prepare to send a message to Congress that this unnecessary government shutdown is hurting their constituent scientists and hampering scientific progress. Please submit your story.

Please also send any corrections or additional impacts to us at [email protected].