News Brief: the Shutdown and Science Communication

1 October 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

The shutdown of the U.S. government is getting ample news coverage, but I wanted to jot down a few notes on what this means for science communication.

So-called “nonessential” federal personnel are not working. This applies to, among others, many (if not most) employees at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exceptions are those who, as described in this article from Science Careers, are involved in animal care, patient care or national defense.

For science writers, this means that most federal researchers cannot be reached. And, even if they can be reached, they won’t be able to discuss their research or comment as third parties on the work of other scientists. This is because researchers who are not working are not allowed to check their work email or engage in activities that are related in any way to their work.

Sorry, reporters. While science will continue to move forward, papers will be published, etc., the pool of people you can talk to about that work just shrunk.

(Side note: if I were an interest group interested in attacking the findings of federal research, now is when I would do it. There are very few government researchers or media relations staff to respond to the attacks. Something to keep an eye on.)

But the science communication impact extends to the public as well. Anyone who goes to the NIH home page this morning will find that it is flagged with a large header that reads, in part: “Due to the lapse in government funding, the information on this web site may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the web site may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.” Similar messages can be found atop the home pages for the CDC and PubMed (the NASA site appears to be shut down completely).

If nothing else, telling people that health-related information may be out of date is likely to make readers uncertain about the veracity of anything they read there (regardless of how established that information may be). That’s troubling.

Outreach activities are also eliminated. For example, NASA sent out a tweet early Oct. 1 saying “Due to the gov't shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

We’ll also be missing out on science news from federal agencies, such as NSF’s daily Science360 updates (the site is currently shuttered).

These are first-blush reflections on the impact of the shutdown on scicomm efforts. I’m sure I’m missing more. Please share your insights about other ways the shutdown is affecting science communication in the comments.

For example, here's one question I have: if federal researchers were in the midst of proofing articles they had authored for journals, what happens? What about federal researchers who are in the midst of reviewing articles submitted by others? Presumably, the researchers can't even use their work email accounts (assuming those are the accounts they use to correspond with journals). Theoretically, these activities could be barred, but I don't know if they are. If the shutdown drags on for weeks, what impact will this have on journals?

Update, 7:45 a.m. (EST), Oct. 2: It looks like I'm not the only one who is unclear on the impact of the shutdown on academic journals. Check out this blog post on the possible effects of the shutdown on PLOS ONE. It looks like they're aware of a possible impact, but are just as unsure about how exactly that will play out.

PS: I know that the shutdown is also affecting science in many other ways. (Here’s a post from ScienceInsider and another post from Science Careers on just a few of those impacts.) But I’m focusing on science communication, because that is what this blog is all about.


5 Responses to “News Brief: the Shutdown and Science Communication”

  1. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    Quick update. To recap, my questions there at the end were: If federal researchers were in the midst of proofing articles they had authored for journals, what happens? What about federal researchers who are in the midst of reviewing articles submitted by others? Are researchers able to use work email accounts to correspond with journals? If these activities are barred, what will impact be on journals if shutdown drags on?

    I've gotten two responses, thus far. One, from a researcher who does not work for the federal government, is that many (or most) scientists will work without pay -- even though they're not supposed to.

    The second response, from a scientist employed by the federal government, answered each of the four questions succinctly: "Stop. Stop. No. I don't know."

  2. Ron Myers Reply | Permalink

    One item that you did not mention was ongoing experiments of "non life sustaining" areas. For example, the US EPA was engaged in a study with other Federal Agencies and other Nations. Years of planning preceded the field activity. The field activity was planned for a four week period which happened to span October 1. All of the people engaged in the study had to stop work and return from the study site. If the government shut down lasts only a few days, there will be increased cost due to the travel, shut down/start up costs and other costs. The study may be able to be completed and the work published. However, after some length of time, all of the capacity to obtain information from the work will be lost and all of the preparation expense will be lost.

  3. Matt Shipman Reply | Permalink

    I suspect there are an enormous number of research initiatives that will be harmed (some irrevocably) by the shutdown. I was focusing on the science communication impacts, since that's the focus of my blog, but it is important to highlight the other impacts as well. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. [BLOCKED BY STBV] U.S. Shutdown Beginning to Affect Journals › Communication Breakdown Reply | Permalink

    [...] The impact on journals isn’t a surprise. Michelle Dohm, an associate editor at PLOS, wrote on Oct. 1 that the shutdown could slow down manuscript reviews at the journal PLOS ONE. Specifically, Dohm wrote, “PLOS ONE reviewers and editors employed by or affiliated with the U.S. government may or may not be available to handle manuscripts.” She mentioned reviewers and editors, but forgot about the other key players in the world of publishing: the authors. [Note: a post on the shutdown’s effect on reporters can be found here, an overview of the shutdown’s potential impact on scicomm is here.] [...]

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