What happens to science when the government closes?

MIT faculty and students face research roadblocks during the government shutdown

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended last Friday.

After five weeks of confusion and protest, President Trump relented on his demands for border wall funding when airports across the Northeastern seaboard were forced to temporarily ground their flights due to lack of FAA and TSA employee attendance. The shutdown forced several research agencies to halt their work, including NASA, the FDA, the NSF, the USDA, NOAA, and NIST. It also disrupted the work of research agencies not directly impacted by the shutdown, including the NIH and the DOE, as much of their work necessitated access to agencies that were closed. 

It should come as no surprise that MIT researchers did not make it out unscathed. Sixty-six percent of funding for research on MIT’s campus is provided by the federal agencies, with much of that funding coming from the NSF and NOAA. Proposals for new or renewing federal funding were not processed during the shutdown, leaving researchers in limbo and potentially without adequate funds to support current projects. Students directly funded by these agencies were in hot water both in the lab and at home, as some did not receive paychecks during this time. And although the government has now reopened, the shutdown has and will continue to have a lasting impact on their work.

MIT researchers wrote to The Tech to recount how they were impacted by losses of funding, cancelled conference sessions, missed opportunities for collaborations, and more:

“Our lab, the MIT Civic Data Design Lab (led by Sarah Williams) contributed to an exhibit on the future of transportation at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in NYC, on display through March 31. Because the museum is operated by the Smithsonian Institution, a federal entity, it has been closed since Jan. 2. This means that for four weeks, our exhibit has been closed to the public, and we have been unaware whether viewers would have the opportunity to see it again before the end of its run.”

“For my thesis, I am researching the barriers to socioeconomically diverse visitation at National Park Service Units. As my thesis proposal explains, I obtained MIT funding to support my research to travel out to Los Angeles for case study research. I planned to meet with NPS staff in LA, but was unable to do so due to the shutdown.

I was also planning to visit NPS staff in DC to research ways to integrate my findings into park planning practices. Due to the shutdown, this visit was canceled. My thesis was majorly impacted by the shutdown.”

“The shutdown has prevented me from seeing the reviews of my most recent proposal, and that in turn has prevented me from discussing the situation with my program manager (who can’t talk to me anyway during the shutdown). There is a Feb. 15 proposal deadline (which may be extended, but who knows?), which would be my last chance to get a proposal in before all of my research funding vanishes this summer.”

“I'm a post-doc fellow at the Whitehead Institute, and I'm supported by an NSF grant. Given the way my fellowship is administered, I haven't been able to access my fellowship funds (which pay my stipend) since the shutdown started. My research per se hasn't been greatly affected, as the Whitehead has been very supportive and helped me to set up a way for me to access my funds for research before the shutdown started.

However, I recently returned from the Plant and Animal Genome conference, and there were plenty of signs of the shutdown evident there: canceled sessions and talks, and people not being able to even talk about their research in one-on-one conversations.”

While some of these losses can be recovered, the Continuing Resolution passed by the Senate and signed by the President will only save them for three weeks. If Congress cannot pass another spending bill that funds the government past Feb. 15, the government will shut down once more.