How the government shutdown could harm the future of American science

How the government shutdown could harm the future of American science

January 13, 2019 0 By Nazmul Khan


A partial government shutdown that has dragged on for weeks has young scientists wondering if working for the federal government is a good idea.

Graduate students and early-career researchers are watching what the government has done to their colleagues at shuttered federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of the Interior, and they’re not liking what they’re seeing. For some, the ongoing threat of government shutdowns isn’t enough to change their career goals. But for others, it’s making them rethink whether a career in the federal government is really worth the frustration. I don’t know if I want a job that could be used as a pawn to further someone’s agenda,” says Kathleen Farley, a graduate student at Rutgers University-Newark.

Scientists aren’t the only ones affected by the current shutdown, which has beat the 1995 shutdown by Republicans to become the longest one yet. Food stamps may end in March, while air traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration agents are on the job without pay. But scientific research has, in some cases, halted, Nature reports. Grants are going unreviewed and field work has been delayed or scrapped altogether. At the National Weather Service, a key weather model is performing badly without anyone around who can maintain it, according to The Washington Post.

Policy experts are worried about what future scientific research in the US looks like. “All this comes to a halt when there is a shutdown,” says John Holdren, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology under President Obama and now a professor of environmental policy at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “That’s a double whammy because it discourages folks from staying in the government if they have other options,” Holdren says. He and other sources in this story were careful to note that there are worse and more immediate consequences than a hit to American competitiveness, particularly for the federal employees and contractors who are living paycheck to paycheck.

Looking forward, he can see ongoing ripple effects even after the government starts up again. The more frequent and the more long-running shutdowns are, the less attractive government becomes as a place to work for scientists and engineers,” Holdren says. And he worries that will mean that young scientists will take their years of education, their training, and their skills elsewhere. It could mean a federal brain drain from agencies where scientists help policymakers make critical decisions.

Farley, the graduate student who expressed nervousness about a federal career, is in her fifth year of graduate school studying birds and urban ecology, and hasn’t been directly affected by the government’s partial closure. As she reaches the end of her PhD, she’s looking ahead to applying to jobs, including work in the non-profit sector, teaching, and federal positions at the Department of the Interior, the National Park Service, or potentially the EPA.

The appeal of a government job is that she could do good for the community and also have healthcare and a chance to retire, one day. “I’d like to retire before age 80 or 90, and retirement packages don’t seem to really exist in the nonprofit world,” she says. “But they don’t do you any good if you can’t get the paycheck you need to pay for the medicines you need and to pay rent.”

Her colleague Nicole Dykstra, also a graduate student at Rutgers, has been through the frustration of a shutdown before. Dykstra, an Army Reservist who served in Iraq with the National Guard, was forced to miss a training weekend during the 2013 shutdown. “You do everything right, and everything supposed to — and suddenly you’re not being compensated on time for reasons that are entirely out of your control,” she says. “It is stressful and frustrating to feel like we’re being held hostage in a fight that has nothing to do with us.”

Dykstra studies animal behavior, particularly group movement and leadership. And she’s pragmatic about the chances of snagging one of those coveted, ever-dwindling, tenure track positions: her son and her spouse’s job mean she probably can’t uproot her life to chase down a job. “If you’re being realistic with yourself looking at job prospects out there, the amount of tenure track or even non-tenure track positions are shrinking all the time,” she says.

So she’s also considering what she calls “alt-academic” positions — like one day applying for a job at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, for example. There’s a lot to like: federal healthcare, the possibility of a pension, not having to worry about being denied tenure, she says. But she worries about the potential to have to go weeks to months without the pay she’s relying on to support her family: “I don’t want to be in that position, I don’t think it’s fair. It feels so terrible to have that vulnerability at any time.”

Elena Thomas, a graduate student studying analytical chemistry at the University of Washington, says she’s always been interested in going into public service — maybe at the FDA, or even NASA. “However, it’s hard to stay motivated in going into that when I see how semi-regularly scientists who work government jobs have to go without pay for these extended periods,” she tells The Verge in a direct message on Twitter. She’s considering having a family one day, and says it’s hard to justify risking her future financial security when there are other options in pharmaceuticals, for example. “Industry jobs already pay better in general for scientists.”

NASA is among the institutions that could suffer. Taryn Black, a graduate student studying geoscience at the University of Washington, has considered working there. But being in the heat of the shutdown makes her more wary, she says. “Having dealt with financial insecurity before, not knowing when the next paycheck is coming would be terrifying,” she tells The Verge in a direct message. But she still has time left in her PhD to make that decision, and she’d considered jobs at the state or local level as well as in in the private sector before the shutdown. “So this isn’t drastically upending my career plans.”

But as some like Black consider other career paths, Zach Pace, an astronomy graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the shutdown hasn’t given him second thoughts about aspiring to a job at NASA. “NASA is the worldwide leader in not only space exploration but also astrophysics,” he says. “I don’t want to just throw up my hands and say ‘okay, well, I’ll go do something else.’” But Pace notes in a direct message on Twitter that he doesn’t have a family to support or significant debt — so his decision is less fraught than that of other scientists. And he worries that if the threat of unexpectedly having to go without pay for weeks or even months makes people avoid positions at government agencies, it could harm both equity and excellence in the long run. If only people with enough financial security to weather a shutdown apply, he says, “You will find yourself drawing from a smaller talent pool.”

One early-career scientist at the Department of the Interior who is currently furloughed remains hopeful. In fact, this scientist did not want their name used because they’re concerned it could damage their future career prospects in federal agencies — even as they anticipate dipping into savings to pay rent next month. Others, they say, have it worse. For them, the shutdown means missing out on collecting data, and puts papers, reports, and collaborations on hold. But that doesn’t change the fact that this job makes them feel like they can make a difference. And for now they’re willing to put up with the frustrations of the shutdown in order to keep doing work that matters. The longer the shutdown goes on, however, the more likely it is for that balance to shift.

For Farley and Dykstra, there are too few jobs in their fields and the competition is too fierce for the ongoing threat of government shutdowns to fully deter them from applying to federal positions. “I think it just causes me to weight it less, as opposed to eliminating it from the running,” Farley says. Dykstra agrees: “Honestly, I’ll still probably look at them.” Thomas, too, says she’ll still consider government jobs: “I wouldn’t say it completely would change my mind on my career post-grad school, but it is another factor that I’ll have to weigh.”





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