Maybe you think this shutdown isn’t all that bad? Perhaps you’re not talking to scientists, or thinking about their role in society. The effects of the government shutdown continue to ripple outward. Scientific research doesn’t cope well with shutdowns.
In many fields, the research has to be maintained continuously; if you shut it down, even for a short period, all your work is wasted. For instance, if you’re working in biology, all your stuff dies. Back to square one, if you can afford it. Or if you’re following an evolving story season by season, missing a season can mean you don’t have good data and you can’t draw any conclusions. Guess you won’t get that Ph. D. after all; time to go find another line of work, after thanking taxpayers for paying for your now wasted education. And if something exciting and once-in-a-lifetime happens in the sky, we may not have our telescopes up and running to observe it. Oh well, what’s another 150 years?
Does this affect non-scientists? Of course it does. If a serious disease breaks out, where is the Center for Disease Control to notice it and keep track of it? Who is monitoring our food supply? Do we really think that unscrupulous food producers, here and abroad, won’t take advantage of the fact that the Food and Drug Administration isn’t doing its testing? What about hackers from hostile nations; are they on shutdown? If this doesn’t frighten you, I don’t know what will…
And what about the sick who would normally be able to benefit from programs run by the National Institutes of Health? Imagine you had a sick relative who was not yet “in imminent danger of dying”:
The most hideous part of all of this is that some of our best scientists are actually forbidden, by law, from doing science until this is over. And meanwhile their chores pile up — they can’t work on those either — which will also get in the way of doing science when they return.
Coming after a recession and a sequester (which were enough to wipe out my own research program), and with no end in sight, one wonders whether the nation will lose an entire generation of young scientists. You know, young people with little kids and a mortgage do have to get paid on time; do they dare work in a government-related institution if they’re going to be furloughed every year or two? And certainly, if you are a young scientist born in another country who is considering whether to take a job offer in the United States compared to remaining in or returning to your own country, you are certainly going to have increasingly serious worries about whether it’s a good career choice. We are risking our ability to bring the best young talent from around the world to work in our laboratories and universities. Not to mention that if you are a foreign scientist, you may not think it so wise to collaborate with American scientists, whose funding might not arrive or who might be forced to stop work. American scientists may find it increasingly difficult to participate in both small-scale and large-scale international projects.
And this is just a shutdown! Heaven forbid we should keep threatening to go into something resembling default! Just when we were starting to get out of the recession, the deficit was coming down, and we had a serious chance to deal with our long-term fiscal challenges, now we’re going to make things worse again?!
This is a self-imposed and increasingly serious mess. Our country stands for the rights of all, and those rights should be defended. But no group, even a large one, and certainly not one with a very small, wealthy core (that’s right, $235 million in donations over just one year — just think of all the medical and other scientific research that could have funded), has the right to threaten the rest of us with economic ruin, and risk our hard work and our livelihoods. Every citizen with an interest in and an understanding of science, business and politics has the responsibility to stand up and be counted. So please, consider writing and calling your own Congresspeople (find them here), and also the people outside your district who are holding us hostage. And then write and call them tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.