Science, Science Communication Slowly Recovering at Federal Agencies

21 October 2013 by Matt Shipman, posted in Uncategorized

Photo: Nicolas Raymond, http://freestock.ca/

The partial shutdown of the U.S. federal government may be over, but federal agencies are still calculating the long-term impact of the shutdown on science and science communication efforts.

Antarctic research projects were early, high-profile victims of the shutdown, with Science reporting Oct. 20 that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is already notifying some researchers that their projects will be delayed by a year.

Researchers can also expect significant delays on grant proposals that have been submitted to research agencies.

“The review of thousands of grants was delayed because of the government shutdown,” says Curtis Carey, acting director of communication at NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). “It will take months to catch up on those reviews.” [Note: an update on the shutdown’s impact on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been included below.]

An Oct. 17 letter from NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett to heads of grantee organizations makes clear the extent of the delays, stating “The National Science Foundation is emerging from a 16-day funding lapse that severely limited our ability to conduct our mission to advance the progress of science and engineering. During this time, no proposals were received or distributed for peer review, no review panels were convened, no new awards were made, and no existing awards received payments.”

Marrett also notes that, while NSF staff “are fully committed to restoring normal operations as quickly as possible….it will take some time for us to work through the backlog of activities noted above, resulting in inevitable delays in funding decisions and possible cancellations of other activities.”

In a separate memo to NSF staff, obtained by Science and also dated Oct. 17, Marrett says that the agency will “establish and publish on the NSF website within one week agency-wide policies for proposal deadline extensions and other grant-related actions.”

A subsequent FastLane advisory from NSF, published Oct. 21, states that “deadlines for proposals originally due between October 1-25 will be revised. The revised deadlines will be communicated as soon as possible via FastLane as well as other electronic methods” and “project reports that became overdue during the shutdown should be submitted via Research.gov as soon as possible.” More information on the shutdown’s impact on active grants and grant proposals at NSF is available in this Oct. 18 document. And Jessica Morrison wrote a good overview piece Oct. 21 for National Geographic News, covering a number of federal agencies.

Science Communication Impacts

But research isn’t the shutdown’s only casualty in the science community – science communication efforts have been hampered as well. And the extent of the impact to science communication remains similarly unclear.

Communications staff are back in place at all of the federal agencies. Social media accounts are buzzing again. Online resources that were shuttered, like Science360 and Census.gov, are available again. And the warnings have been removed from other online resources that were affected, such as PubMed.

However, it remains unclear how long it will take some affected sites to bring themselves up to date. For example, we know that PubMed wasn’t being updated during the shutdown. How long will it take for staff to plug in all of the studies that were published while they were on furlough?

And agency communications staff are also working their way through a significant backlog of emails and phone messages that piled up during the shutdown.

“We are assessing how long it will take to catch up on the backlog of public inquiries and publications orders received through our Health Information Center,” says NHLBI’s Carey. “The Health Information Center typically manages approximately 150 inquiries and 250 orders each week.”

But those are issues that can be quantified. Some of the science communication impacts of the shutdown are less susceptible to number crunching.

“The real impact on our office won’t be in the time it takes to resume communications activities,” Carey says. “It will be working to re-engage and reconnect with our core audiences, be it via social media or other channels. Communications is all about relationships, and for two and a half weeks, our staff were not able to nurture those relationships. We will feel the effect of those lost interactions and connections.

“An even bigger issue may be the lost opportunity to share scientific discoveries within the reality of the news cycle,” Carey says. “While there’s no way to quantify this, many of our science communications activities are tied to the release of scientific research in journal articles. In the cases where  NHLBI-funded research was published during the shutdown, we have lost the news window to be able to share that information more broadly with the scientific community and the public. Our media outreach efforts to share these discoveries are vital in bringing attention to the important work of our scientists and grantee institutions.”

Update, Oct. 23: “The government shutdown caused an unfortunate disruption in vital EPA services that protect people’s health and the environment,” says Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokesperson. “EPA employees will work to tackle the three-week backlog on pesticide imports and other services as quickly as possible, however delays are expected in this process. However, other important actions that did not take place during the shutdown, like air, water and hazardous waste inspections, cannot be made up.”

Note: I’ve reached out to communications staff from six federal agencies. I’m still waiting for feedback from most of them, which isn’t surprising given the backlog they’re dealing with. I’ll update this post as additional information comes in.


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