U.S. Scientists Vary as Government Shutdown Ends

The U.S. government has reopened, temporarily, after a historic 35-day shutdown that paralyzed the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA and other key science agencies, Nature reports.

Many federal scientists went back to work this week, but it could take weeks or months for their agencies to return to normal operations. Complicating that recovery is the chance that the government could shut down again next month.

The deal that President Donald Trump announced, and that he and Congress approved on January 25, funds the government for three weeks, until 15 February. Researchers in and outside of the federal government greeted the shutdown’s end with a mix of wariness and relief.

“I’m a little nervous that we could be seeing this again in three weeks, but right now I am too happy to worry about it. We’ve been worrying for five weeks so it’s just nice to take a break,” says a fish biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who asked for anonymity to prevent retaliation by her agency.

“I think this is good news,” says a researcher who studies natural hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey, and asked to remain anonymous to prevent retaliation by his agency. “The key here is whether or not we will receive missing paychecks during this time, and trying to prepare for what happens three weeks from now. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”

The shutdown dragged on two weeks longer than any other in U.S. history, and its effects on science have been profound. It has interrupted studies of everything from California’s coastal fisheries to clinical trials of experimental drugs, and key federal data sets have been pulled offline. Employees at many science agencies were forced to stay at home without pay for more than a month, and academic researchers have been deprived of key research funding.

The shutdown has also dented many researchers’ morale, prompting scientists at all career stages to rethink working for the federal government, Nature notes.

“I have had a wonderful career at the USDA, and believe in its mission,” says a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “There used to be a feeling of stability, and now the stability is gone, in addition to eroding budgets and increasing bureaucratic demands. I know some people will hit the tipping point.”

One senior scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency has mixed feelings about returning to work, given the uncertainty about future funding and what he sees as the Trump administration’s general hostility to science. “The shutdown overlays anxiety about what we can work on, what we can’t, how our work is valued, or more likely not,” he says.

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