Temporary Reprieve: Can Kicked Down The Road

Back to work (Source Credit: www.freephotosbank.com/10083.html)
Image Credit: Free Photos Bank

So... It was done. Since late last night, the shutdown has been over, the government offices re-opened this morning, and Federal workers are back at work. The worked-out deal in its final form provides for appropriations at the current (post-sequester) spending levels for all Federal agencies through January 15, 2014 (which includes back pay to Federal workers who had been put on furlough), and extends the Treasury's borrowing authority through February 7. The leaders of the legislative bodies have agreed to work towards a financial framework leading to subsequent tax and entitlement reform legislation. Meanwhile, economists have come up with a figure of US $24 billion as a cost of the 16-day shutdown kabuki theater, made up entirely of lost government productivity and revenue, and even then, the nation's Legislative has simply kicked the can down the road, to the beginning of next year. We may very well find ourselves again in a similar mess come January or February, if broader reforms are not undertaken and if sequestration isn't altered or repealed.

However, as before, it is not my intention to discuss politics in this space. My attention was drawn by a worrisome (although, not entirely unknown) situation highlighted by Darren Samuelsohn writing for Politico. In a report this morning, he pointed out how the fallout on science from this prolonged shutdown could last for years, and how it's timing could not have come at a worst time. Some of the serious effects on the functioning of the NIH were voiced earlier by Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and Director of the National Cancer Institute, who warned that the enforced delay on the review of grant applications and renewals is going to be devastating even if the NIH resumed its normal functioning at the end of the shutdown. Wrote Samuelsohn:

October is also a key month in the federal grant application process for thousands of academic researchers, but that paperwork is piling up at NIH and the National Science Foundation with no clear picture on when it will be sorted out[...]

[...] several scientists said they are concerned that the same problems will emerge by the next budget deadline in mid-January. Another funding lapse could mean flushing away years of work in the natural sciences, in particular any real-time research dealing with astronomy or the environment.

Thinking more of the big picture, there’s also the little matter of keeping the best and brightest researchers working in, and for, the United States or seeing them flee to the private sector. It’s a realistic expectation after nearly three years of stop-and-go budget battles resulting in sequestration and now the cruel reality of laboratories ordered to keep the lights out.

As Samuelsohn further pointed out in his report, clinical researchers in Boston University or the Johns Hopkins University working on long-term projects have been seriously impacted because the shutdown forced them to stop their patient interactions, causing irreplacable gaps in their research continuity.

Another less-visible but long-term fallout on the US scientific community is the significant impact on the immigration system, given the considerable number of foreign, non-citizen graduate students and post-doctoral researchers (2011 data from NSF: respectively, 28% and 52%) who work and actively contribute to the sciences in the US. As of today, the Department of Labor Office of Foreign Labor Certification is not operating, and thus Labor Condition Applications are required for new and continuing H-1B applications are not being processed; for the same reason, Permanent Residency applications requiring PERM processing are stalled. Applications for NAFTA treaty status are not being processed at Canadian ports of entry, and most importantly, no applications for new Social Security Numbers or replacement cards are being accepted. On Thursday (October 17), the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers, NAFSA, reported that "at 10:15 am EST the Department of Labor's iCERT website and PERM website were still delivering the message that they were unavailable because of the shutdown, and the DOL Office of Foreign Labor Certification's website had not been updated to reflect the reopening" - which remained true for these and many other Federal organizations at 5 p.m. Eastern Time.

When the clock struck twelve, Cinderella's stage-coach turned back to a pumpkin. For the government offices, one cannot reasonably expect them to switch to a functioning mode so instantaneously. The shutdown is bound to have left a deep and ugly mark in many areas affecting the US science and research community, and the pain will be felt for some time to come. We can only hope for a slow return to normalcy, and hopefully - oh, how I hope! - the legislators would not be boneheaded enough to force another shutdown in three months' time. Honestly, I don't know if this nation's much-vaunted science and research status can withstand another hit like this.

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