By Sarah Readdean
The end of the longest partial government shutdown in American history ended Jan. 25, after a lengthy 35 days. Throughout this period, the public would hear news of staffing shortages in airports, the backlogged immigration courts and the financial burden faced by hundreds of thousands of federal workers.
But what about the approximately 80 federal departments and agencies devoted to science, technology, research, health and the environment? How was their work affected by the shutdown? Given that science can be a slow and deliberate process, it is especially vulnerable to a shutdown.
Furloughed scientists had to take a break from their work, which is critical to the wellbeing of humanity. And many others — even those not connected to the government — have had to delay their research due to a lack of funding, which can also hold detrimental effects.
“A gap in data collection compromises years, even decades, of work,” according to a PBS NOVA video.
Let’s take a closer look at how the shutdown affected branches of science, specifically the environment, research and human health.
The 19 Smithsonian museums, including the National Zoo, were closed and lost a lot of potential revenue. Animal lovers could no longer watch the zoo’s popular panda cam. The elephant and lion live streams were also shut down, but the zoo continued to take care of its animals.
The unfortunate timing of the shutdown — taking place during many schools’ winter breaks — prevented visitors from exploring these sites and led to a loss in revenue. Suffering from a loss in funds, the zoo might have to compromise upcoming projects and even amenities for its animals.
Excluded from the many National Parks that closed during the shutdown, Joshua National Park in southern California remained open. But with only a few rangers on duty, the park was trashed with litter and endangered Joshua trees were cut down, according to Business Insider.
Even though we should not have to rely on government regulations to properly care for the environment, the absence of government employees demonstrated their importance in protecting natural habitats.
The West Coast recently suffered a catastrophic series of blazing wildfires, so it is essential to have people capable of combating these fires. But the shutdown happened to fall at the same time as firefighter trainings for the second year in a row Jim Whittington, a former employee of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told McClatchy DC.
“The last thing we want is for fires to break out and not have the kind of crews we need to field,” he said.
Rufus Isaacs, an entomologist at Michigan State University, told Science magazine that he could not ship the endangered bumblebees he studies to the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the shutdown.
The project he is working with is called the Integrated Crop Pollination project and is funded by the USDA. Because bee populations have drastically declined, these researchers are trying to find alternate ways of pollination for crop farmers.
Delaying by just a few months “can mean a whole year of progress is lost,” Isaacs said, “because if we don’t have the answers from the recent experiments, we don’t know how to prepare for the coming growing season.”
The National Hurricane Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had difficulty making improvements to its models for the next hurricane season, and thus forecasts for the early fall could be less accurate.
Since hurricanes in recent years have become increasingly intense, the best and most accurate forecasting models are especially dire now more than ever.
In terms of space exploration, all work at NASA was ceased, except for necessary operations on current satellites to “ensure the safety of that satellite and the data received from it,” according to NASA’s Revised Plan for Potential Shutdown.
Twice this past year, romaine lettuce was recalled for an E. coli outbreak. It has since been deemed safe to eat, but because of the shutdown, the Food and Drug Administration has stopped most food inspections.
Most foreign food inspections continued as normal, but domestic food production facilities were left virtually uninspected, the article said.
In addition to the limited food inspection during the shutdown, research for cures was also delayed.
William Chadwick, a researcher in the Chan Lab at San Francisco State University, told Seeker, “If a child who would’ve had a cure in six months doesn’t for another five years [because of a setback in funding] and passes [away] between those two points, then that’s the easiest way to think of how it affects people.”
The public and the government may underestimate how much science departments and agencies were affected due to a shutdown. Not only were scientists’ paychecks compromised, but so was the successful continuation of their projects. The impacts of the partial shutdown, may therefore, be long-lasting.