Grants are set to dry up, space launches could be delayed and some experiments could be ruined.

Lauren Morello, Giorgia Guglielmi, Heidi Ledford, Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson & Alexandra Witze

Taken from


Scientists in the United States are bracing for impact after lawmakers in Congress failed to agree on a plan to fund the government, triggering its indefinite shutdown on 20 January.

As a result of the impasse, thousands of federal researchers have been ordered to stay home, barred from accessing their government e-mail and phones. That will leave many science agencies staffed by small numbers of ‘essential’ employees, interrupting government research on everything from winter snowpack in the western United States to the inner workings of the brain. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) will stop processing grants, depriving some academic researchers of crucial funding, and NASA may be forced to delay the launch of spacecraft that have spent years in development.

But worst of all, many researchers say, is that there is no clear sign when the shutdown will end. Republicans and Democrats in Congress are continuing to negotiate a budget deal, seeking to resolve a major disagreement over immigration policy, but progress has been slow. The last government shutdown, in October 2013, lasted for 16 days — cutting short the US Antarctic Program’s annual field seasondelaying some grant-funding cycles by six months or more and disrupting an untold number of carefully planned experiments.

“We kind of feel like there’s not much we can do about anything,” says one NIH researcher of the current situation. “It’s very annoying. It’s very demeaning.”

For Bryan Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the current situation brings back bad memories. The 2013 shutdown caused the NIH to delay, by several months, a grant cycle for which Jones had submitted a proposal. As a result, he says, his university had to cover the costs of running his lab while he waited for the NIH’s decision.

Jones again has a grant application under review at NIH — and he says that a delayed decision this time could force him to lay off some of his employees. “From a scientist’s perspective it hurts. We get angry,” he says. “But NIH is doing what they can do.”

Shrinking windows

Other researchers face the prospect that the shutdown could cause major delays to projects that are well underway. Chad Hayes, a plant scientist at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), says that he will lose a year’s worth of work if the shutdown persists for more than a couple of days. Hayes, who is part of a team developing a variety of drought-resistant sorghum, was set to travel to Mexico on 22 January. There, his team planned to breed the plants during the brief window when sorghum is pollinated — about one week each year.

But the USDA told Hayes to stay home if the government shut down. Now he worries that he will miss the pollination window, delaying his experiments for a year and wasting the money that his team spent to prepare for the Mexico trip. “It’s basically like walking away from your babies,” he says. “We’ve been building up to this project for a year now.”

At NASA, the funding lapse could delay the planned launch of the Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that is designed to monitor the Sun’s activity at close range. On 17 January, the probe entered a thermal vacuum chamber at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. There it is scheduled to undergo seven weeks of tests in conditions that mimic the extreme temperature fluctuations it will experience as it repeatedly swoops around the Sun.

If Goddard closes and the tests cannot proceed, the probe may not be ready to launch between 31 July and 19 August, the brief window during which Earth’s position relative to other planets in the Solar System would enable the probe to achieve its proper trajectory towards the Sun.

Fortunate few

Some government programmes are prepared to weather a shutdown, at least for a few weeks, because they are operated by contractors who receive federal money in periodic chunks. Officials with the US Antarctic Program have told polar researchers that funding for the remainder of the current field season, which ends in February, is guaranteed. And the National Science Foundation recently gave a 30-day cash infusion to the construction managers supervising work on the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope in Hawaii and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile.

Then there is the Department of Energy (DOE), which will continue normal operations until it spends money left over from prior budget years. “Bottom line: the Department of Energy will be open for business on Monday,” said spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes. She refused to say how long the department’s cash reserves might hold out.

DOE’s science facilities include 17 national laboratories that study everything from nuclear weapons to climate change. Sixteen are run by contractors, and should be largely unaffected unless the shutdown wears on for several weeks. An official at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico said that if that happens, that facility would seek to minimize disruption by slowly phasing in furloughs for non-essential employees. “We don’t at some point just magically turn off the lights,” said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter.

At the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 55% of employees will stay on the job during the shutdown, in part because a significant chunk of the agency’s funding comes from fees charged to industry for reviews of drugs and medical devices. By contrast, just 0.9% of the roughly 8,000 workers at the US Geological Survey are considered essential — including seismologists at the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado, who provide real-time analysis of earthquakes worldwide.

Closing time

The longer a shutdown lasts, the bigger the potential hit to government scientists’ morale, researchers say. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt said his agency had enough funding to operate normally into next week, but it remains unclear how long such an approach could hold. The agency’s posted shutdown plan calls for fewer than 800 of its roughly 14,000 employees to report to work. EPA’s Office of Research and Development will halt active experiments, although some employees will be permitted to care for laboratory animals and maintain equipment.

“Staff will be allowed to come in and feed the fish, but they cannot take the measurements for the scientists,” says Lesley Mills, an EPA biologist in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and president of the local chapter of a union that represents agency employees. “People are going to be upset.”

Across the country in Boulder, Colorado, a skeleton crew will keep watch at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory. The agency’s greenhouse-gas monitoring programme will continue to collect data, but many of the scientists who analyze it expect to be locked out of their offices. During the 2013 shutdown, which lasted for 16 days, some of the researchers ended up working from home — likely in violation of federal law.

And at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, which is headquartered on the campus of the University of Colorado Boulder, researchers have been warned that they will lose access to some science facilities. That’s because the institute is a partnership between the university and NOAA, receives significant federal funding and occupies a mix of government- and university-owned buildings. And while scientists there can access their university e-mail during the shutdown, they are barred from checking their government accounts.

“We’re getting pretty good at this,” says a NOAA scientist of coping with a shutdown’s immediate effects. But the constant uncertainty over federal finances in recent years has made it hard for researchers to plan for the future, the scientist says: “Toss in some threats, like potential budget cuts, and it becomes degrading and counterproductive.”

Prepping for a shutdown poses a “real cost to agencies”, says Joel Widder, a former NSF deputy director who is now a lobbyist with the firm Federal Science Partners in Washington DC. “The threat of a shutdown makes people [at scientific agencies] not take decisions: grants have been held off. Graduate students’ stipends, traineeships, and the purchase of research instrumentation have been put on hiatus.”

Morale worries

A protracted shutdown could also pose more basic challenges for federal researchers — who will not be paid during a shutdown, whether they are ordered to continue working or stay home. In a 19 January e-mail, the National Institutes of Health told staff members that a private credit union associated with the agency would “provide interest-free loans to all NIH employees whose paychecks are delayed because of the shutdown”.

Although government employees are typically paid back wages after the shutdown ends, the situation tends to make many anxious, says William Hubbard, a former FDA official. Current employees may think about leaving; prospective employees may decide to work elsewhere. “A shutdown could push these people over the edge,” says Hubbard, who is now retired. “And the FDA already has a critical shortage of scientists.”

For now, researchers are left to watch and wait as politicians seek a new budget agreement. One possibility being floated in Congress is a stopgap funding bill that would run until 8 February — when the government could once again shut down if politicians do not approve another round of spending legislation. Michael Lubell, a physicist at City College in New York and a former director of public affairs for the American Physical Society, says that the current shutdown is likely to last at least a week. Beyond that, he says, “we could go the entire year with the threat of a shutdown.”

Taken from

By Helena Lucente, Ph.D. Student, University of Utah, Cancer Research

The March for Science was a turning point in science communication. For the first time, scientists and science supporters were part of a movement to advance science education, communication, and promote science in policymaking. The current administration has threatened the scientific enterprise in this country in a number of ways, including:

  • Proposing a budget that would cut funding to federal science and medical research institutions
  • Appointing science deniers to positions of leadership
  • Withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Agreement

The anti-science political agenda was a call to action for scientists to get out of the lab and into the streets. The passion that motivated me to pursue my PhD is the same passion that inspired me to get involved in science communication and policy. As a scientist, I would have the opportunity to give back to the community and impact lives. Discoveries made in the scientific world today can be translated into clinical treatments for patients and new knowledge for aspiring students tomorrow. I joined the University of Utah specifically because they had created a dual degree program (Med-into-Grad Program) to train basic scientists in medicine and translational research, so they could bridge the understanding between research and medicine.

With the change in the political climate and the public outcry for science in 2017 I felt galvanized to do something to give back and help. Science communication and policy was away for me to bridge understanding this time between scientist, politicians, and the community. I enrolled in communication training through the STEM Ambassador Program (STEMAP).  With the help of this program I approached Utah state representatives and discussed the role scientists can play in decision-making. I met with Representative Rebecca Chavez-Houck (D) and Representative Edward Redd (R) to get a bipartisan perspective on science in government.

To me, the worlds of science and policymaking seem far apart in culture, language, and ways of taking action, so I felt anxious in the waiting room of Representative Chavez-Houck. My expectation was that legislative priorities would leave little time to speak with a graduate student. These notions were quickly dispelled; she spent an hour patiently explaining the unique challenges legislators face and how scientists can get involved in government. In fact, I learned that Representative Chavez-Houck was as passionate as I was to involve scientists in lawmaking. She introduced me to Representative Edward Redd (R), a medical doctor who approaches his own work as a legislator with a keen understanding of how informed legislative decisions benefit from science. This meeting gave me insights on scientific culture (for more on this, see my post on the American Society for Cell Biology blog) and a bipartisan perspective on science in government. The policymakers felt the community viewed scientists as isolated and unapproachable.

Talking with Democratic and Republican leaders taught me what each party values. I learned the importance of shaping an argument that speaks to the values of both parties and their constituents and how, even with different values, they had the potential to reach the same conclusions. For example, a political agenda that greatly impacts scientists and Utahans is transferring ownership of public lands to the state. A scientist may advocate for protecting and preserving these ecological treasures by keeping them as public lands. However, that scientist must appeal to all politicians not just those who support environmental conservation. If a politician values balancing the budget, then a scientist could appeal to their economic desires. They could explain that the debt the state government may incur by maintaining public lands could far out way the financial gains they would expect to make from tourism/recreation, oil, or mining causing financial instability. It was refreshing to learn that, at the state level, representatives of different political parties with differing values could reach the same conclusion and had a strong respect for the contribution of each.

Meeting with policymakers taught me a lot about scientists’ role in the government, and I wanted to share what I learned with others who are interested in becoming more involved. For other scientists who wish to interact with legislators, I have three pieces of advice.

  1. Understand legislators’ priorities.

Legislators must consider multiple values when they make decision, so scientific values must be weighed along with the values of their constituents. Prior to meeting with a legislator, scientists should learn the priorities of that legislator and their constituents. Many legislators have a webpage where you can view their voting history and bills sponsored. Some have a newsletter you can sign up for.

  1. Be objective

It is important that scientists remain non-partisan when presenting information. Legislators may dismiss valid scientific research presented if it is framed in a political context. One very powerful example of what happens when science becomes politically charged is when former Vice President Gore became the face of global climate change. Climate change was no longer viewed for its scientific merits, but as a liberal agenda. People who disagree with his political ideology may dismiss the valid scientific research he presented. If scientists present their data directly to lawmakers, objectively and regardless of political affiliation, politicians are more likely to consider their conclusions when making decisions moving forward.

  1. Build relationships

Most importantly, trust is built overtime. Scientists need to meet their representatives and establish a relationship, so that legislators feel comfortable calling on them when making decisions. It is best to contact representatives when the legislator is out of session because they will have more time to meet. After I had established a relationship with Representative Chavez-Houck over multiple meetings, she invited me to two events for bringing STEM businesses to Utah and promoting STEM education. She identified me as a scientist who was concerned about science policy, advocacy, and education, and offered me opportunities to connect with other policymakers and constituents on these issues.

Thus, although I came to these legislators without a specific advocacy agenda, I was able to build relationships with legislators that led to a working relationship and real opportunities to provide scientifically sound insights into decisions on science education for youth in our state. With a relatively small investment of time – less than ten hours for preparation and meetings – I had a small, but real, influence on bridging science and society. My scientific pursuits will likely take me away from Utah in the future; however, I will take the important lessons I have learned here to continue to follow my passion to give back by engaging in my community and investing in my local and state government.


About Helena Lucente

Helena Lucente wants to bridge the gap between science and society through improving science advocacy, policy, education and communication. She is pursuing her Ph.D. in Oncological Sciences and M.S. in Clinical Investigation at the University of Utah. She can be reached on Twitter at @HelenaLucente1 and via email at

The new tax plan introduced by House Republicans could have negative implications for universities, graduate students and those with student loans.

Many grad students — especially in Ph.D. programs — receive tuition waivers in exchange for teaching classes or doing research. Under current law, that money isn’t taxed as income. But the new bill calls for those tuition waivers to be counted as income and subjected to income taxes.

That means graduate students would be paying taxes on money they never receive.

Kelly Balmes is finishing up a master’s degree — on her way to a Ph.D. — in atmosphere and sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Balmes, 24, is from Chicago, so her out-of-state tuition is $30,000 a year. It’s paid for through grants; money she never sees.

The university pays her a yearly stipend of about $30,000 in exchange for her work in research and as a teaching assistant. That’s considered minimum wage in Seattle — about $15 an hour.

In 2016, she paid income taxes on her teaching stipend and ended up owing the government $2,334.

If the tax bill passes, the grant that covers tuition will be viewed as additional income. If the numbers remain the same, Balmes’ total income before deductions becomes $61,398 — nearly double what she filed last year.

She would owe $7,488, about $5,000 more.

“This makes graduate school unattainable for anybody not already very well off,” Balmes says. “It also creates a diversity problem, which graduate STEM programs already have.”

What else will be affected if the bill is passed:

  1. Endowments: The bill would levy a tax of 1.4 percent on net investment income for well-endowed private colleges. After an outcry from some universities, the language was adjusted so the tax would apply only to well-endowed colleges with $250,000 or more in the bank per full-time student.
  2. Student loan interest, tuition reductions and education assistance: If you make less than $80,000 and are paying back your student loans, you will no longer be able to deduct up to $2,500. Also, employers who cover some of their employees’ college costs would have that money taxed.
  3. College tax credit consolidation:Three tax credits — American opportunity tax credit, lifetime learning credit and Hope scholarship credit — would be consolidated into one credit. This would include a $2,000 credit for families spending money on college tuition, books and supplies.
  4. Coverdell Education Savings Accounts: The bill would phase out Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow families to invest money for college without the funds being taxed.
  5. Tax bills for death and disability:The House plan would put an end to forgiving student debt because of death or disability.

Of the 145,000 students in graduate programs receiving these tuition waivers, about 60 percent are in STEM programs, according to the Department of Education.

If the House bill passes, Balmes might have to reconsider getting her Ph.D. and stop her education at a master’s, she says. “It’s upsetting because it wouldn’t really be my decision.”

She hopes that the Senate’s tax plan will be passed instead because under that one there are no changes to tax credits or tuition waivers.

Colleges and universities have also raised concerns about the House bill.

Carnegie Mellon University, a private school in Pittsburgh known for programs in science and technology, is one of the many schools — including Boston University — speaking out.

CMU sent faculty an email saying it was monitoring how the bill would impact students and faculty.

“Any provision that would make higher education more costly for students, effectively reducing access, will harm American families and undermine the mission of higher education and CMU,” wrote interim President Farnam Jahanian. “That includes proposals to tax graduate student stipends, eliminate tax deductions for student loans, or reduce incentives for employers to contribute to tuition.”

He said there are long-term benefits to investing in graduate students.

“The education we provide undergraduates and graduate students is one of the most powerful engines for their future success and ability to contribute to society.”