The Lights Are Going Out…

When it is darkest, men see the stars.

This afternoon I needed to check something urgently, and as is my habit in this day and age, I jumped to a website where I knew the information was available.
A few seconds later, with some irritation I went to hit “refresh” as the request failed to go through, and then realized that it was a *.nasa.gov address, at Ames, as it happens, and I was not going to be getting that bit of data this afternoon, not without some old fashioned legwork.
A bit later I realized with increasing dismay that a signficant fraction of the illustrations for my class next week were hosted on *.nasa.gov websites. I link to those by preference, because .edu websites hosting such info have historically been too evanescent and not reliably there when needed.

This is nothing. Minor irritation. Incrementally more work for me to carry out routine tasks.

The other consequences of the ongoing shutdown are getting more serious, for science, specifically.
I saw the first strike when the NRAO closed last week. Friends were furloughed, observations ended. Time on the sky for multi-million dollar facilities is permanently lost, for ever. Our last proposal had completed observations, and our next proposed observations have not yet started. NRAO can’t tell us if they were approved or rejected even. I hear GBT operated for a bit with WV state money, and rumour has it Arecibo ticks on, since “they’re used to not being paid anyway…” but the websites are down, so it is impossible to tell.
ALMA continues, it has international partners, and furloughs are, apparently, illegal under Chilean labour law.

MAVEN, the Mars atmospheric probe due to be launched next month, was halted, then restarted as NASA bravely declared it essential to proceed. They lost a couple of days of the few days of slack they had in the schedule before hitting a rather tight launch window.
Rest of NASA is dark.

AURA has summarized upcoming walls for astronomical facilities – NOAO shuts at the end of next week, if things continue, initially Kitt Peak and Gemini North. STSCI ought to keep running through October, but at some point HST would have to go safe and cease operation, again permanently losing observing windows.

The real tragedy right now is the shuttering of the Antarctic bases and with it the research done there (including ongoing PSU research projects our students work on).
In the very near future, most of the staff will have been pulled back, leaving minimal skeleton crews, ending preparation for the southern summer research season, and very quickly making it impossible to restart any work even if the US government comes back on.
Ice White & Blue has an epic rant on just how infuriatingly stupid and wasteful that particular unintended consequence is.

The National Labs are next – LANL, Sandia etc will shut down as their corporate managing institution run out of buffered funds.

After that we start to run out of grants, new grants are not funded, interim payments are not made.
Universities will have to decide whether they can try to tide people over in the hope the money gets paid eventually. Most will, for a while.

Application deadlines are coming up.
The latest word is that we are to plan to submit on time, and then for any deadline that passes, to plan to have a submission ready within 3 days of the government restarting.
Of course the proposal guidelines are on shuttered government websites, in some cases.

At some point, this will not work. It will not be possible for agencies to receive the proposals when they come back to work. Some deadlines will be pushed back. At some point this will lead to awards being pushed back, which is a permanent loss in funding. Pushing award deadlines back 3 months is a one-off 25% cut in funding. If the backlog gets too large, some programs will simply be suspended for the year.
Enough programs shut down, the science enterprise scales down in proportion. Less money means fewer people hired, fewer students funded.

Building a functioning science infrastructure takes years, destroying it can be done quite quickly.

Today it looked for a few hours like the government might actually reopen.
But, the proposed deal is just for a short term extension of the debt ceiling. The government would remain shut. And, they didn’t vote on it anyway. And, it sounds like the House Republicans wanted to attach some conditions to the plan anyway. The President can not accept any conditions. Congress needs to extend the debt ceiling to allow for authorized funding to be allocated, ideally by bringing back the Gephardt Rule, abolished by the House Republicans in the last government shutdown episode almost two decades ago.
It is not clear if they House majority will fold, or if some Senate proposal will be forced through. The latest version has them proposing to pass a clone of the 2011 budget.
It is hard to compare budgets, the historical data is all on .gov websites, but near as I can tell that implied near flat funding for NSF and maybe 3-4% cut for NASA. How far down the line items cuts would propagate could get interesting – we might end up with no money for JWST and a couple of billion dollars for obsolete hardware for cancelled launcher from Utah aerospace companies. Again.
Or the whole thing could implode triggering some hybrid between a constitutional crisis and financial market seizure that could make 2008 look like a foreshock.

Not a way to run civilization folks.

Comments

  1. #1 Thomas P
    October 11, 2013

    Maybe the wayback machine can help with some dead government links:
    http://archive.org/web/web.php

  2. #2 Miguel V.
    October 11, 2013

    AFAIK, scientific staff working for observatories in Chile are not under Chilean labour law, they have a different status, similar to dimplomats.

    And if I recall correctly, the american side in ALMA pays the salaries for chileans workers, who are covered by Chilean law. I wonder what will happen if ALMA runs out of money for that and it’s unable to pay the salaries. Another strike? Get sued and pay hefty fines? ALMA (and other observatories) can lose reputation and lose some capable personel.

    BTW. What will happen to the ISS?

    MV

  3. #3 jane
    October 11, 2013

    I am supposed to be reviewing a proposal for a federal agency right now, but failed to download a copy before the shutdown, not realizing that their website would be instantly offline. I was going to write to the program officer to apologize for the possible delay, then I realized that IF he even got the email, he has been furloughed, he’s just lost a paycheck and may be wondering how to pay his exorbitant DC rent/mortgage, and he’ll probably tell me where I can stick the review. Multiply that by who knows how many proposals and reviewers, and is there any chance they’ll be prepared to process these proposals on time and with full information, even if the shutdown ends this weekend? Not likely.

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    October 11, 2013

    NSF’s Fastlane system has gone dark. NASA’s NSPIRES site is run by a contractor, so they’re still up for the time being, but they will eventually have to go dark as well when the money runs out. I have been getting notices from NASA about indefinite program postponements as well. Some of my colleagues are working on NSF proposals nominally due 15 October, and I have heard nothing about the status of that solicitation.

    Government scientists are already no-showing at conferences. People funded via NASA contracts already have to get permission from NASA to go to conferences (thanks to the sequester), which they now cannot get. I expect that the impact to the AGU meeting in December will be significant.

    And yes, the downstream effects are going to be large. Many of today’s students and postdocs–more than has been historically normal–will look at these funding struggles and rationally conclude that there are easier ways to make a living. Some of these students may not be able to complete their degrees if the shutdown lingers. That would be a total waste for everyone involved, and that talent, once lost, will never come back.

  5. #5 jane
    October 12, 2013

    A couple of years ago, people I know from a federal agency did not show up to a meeting, negatively affecting the program, because there had been a threat of a shutdown and they were ordered to cancel their flights in case that happened. For anyone who thinks federal workers are going on junkets with “your” tax dollars: If a federal employee wants to go to a conference or meeting, they now have to put in a request with a justification for the travel months in advance. These get collated and approval can be given for only a couple of people across the entire government, no matter the size or importance of the meeting. (The explicit right-wing goal of destroying the government is not furthered by competency in government. The idea is to make sure government doesn’t work well so people will be willing to get rid of it. Step One is to pay crummy salaries so it’s harder to get first-rate people to work for you. Step Two is to try to prevent staff from being well-informed and up to date in their field, something that any sane employer would encourage.) Let’s not even talk about the stupid, niggling travel expense requirements that force feds to stay only at a hotel with a Government Rate, even if that means they save $10 a day on the hotel and spend $80 on taxis.

    Also, while we’re at it: I have now been to two meetings at which a government official bought everyone coffee and donuts out of their own, not exceptionally well-paid pockets. They’re only allowed to buy lunch for meetings because people are not physically able to sit around a table for two days without food, but you can live without coffee, therefore it’s a “wasteful luxury” that feds and people working with them are no longer allowed. Speaking as a taxpayer, I’m happy to have $10 of tax dollars per panel meeting or workshop go to coffee so that people can share basic social pleasantries and get their eyes fully open before they start making decisions.

  6. #6 David
    October 15, 2013

    There is a Huffington Post article stating that ~18 percent
    of scientists who answered this poll said that we wanted to immigrate and this was before the shutdown. One scientist from Russia said the situation reminds her of what it was like in the Soviet Union around 1990. The people interviewed in the article were all in the life/medical sciences so I wonder what would be the percentage in the physical sciences especially wit

  7. #7 Bob Cormack
    Colorado
    October 30, 2013

    “Not a way to run civilization folks.”

    So, running the civilization on borrowed money that you can’t afford and can’t pay back is the way to go?

    BTY, I’m not a “bitter outsider”: I’ve had my share of living off the government’s money -NBS (later NIST), and a number of years on government grant money at both small companies and universities.

    If you want to try an economic (or even moral) argument that government supported science is more important than a sound economy, have at it and good luck. (And, what do you suppose will happen to government-supported science when the economy crashes?) However, I see nobody trying that argument here.

    p.s. Jane (“not exceptionally well-paid pockets”): Government workers are not under-paid. While there’s a bit of “battling statistics” on the subject (http://www.factcheck.org/2010/12/are-federal-workers-overpaid/), when benefits are included, there’s no question that the average government worker’s compensation is significantly greater than the average private sector worker’s compensation, given the same level of education. (And this doesn’t consider job security.)

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