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Government Shutdown Puts A Chill On Scientific Research

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A half-size replica of the Hubble floats over the NASA Space Shuttle Trainer exhibit, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at the Museum of Flight in Seattle. (AP Photo/Jordan Stead) | AP

WASHINGTON -- The shutdown of the federal government, now well into its second week, has put a chill on the science community and left young researchers wondering how badly damaged their projects and careers could be.

Scientists and researchers interviewed for this article were quick to point out that the problems they face began way before Congress failed to come to a budget agreement. The spending cuts brought about by sequestration had a far more crippling effect than a nine-day freeze on government operations, they said. But they added that the shutdown has delivered a second significant blow, further destabilizing funding streams, disrupting research, and compelling those in the field to think about switching jobs altogether.

Benjamin Cain, a post-doctoral researcher at UC Davis in California, said he isn't ready to explore a career switch -- although the thought has crossed his mind.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope program accepted a proposal from Cain over the summer to study galaxy clusters and dark matter properties. But when NASA gave final approval on Oct. 2, officials there suddenly went silent. The shutdown had caused furloughs at the agency, and Cain couldn't get an answer when he called to check on the status of his project. When he logged on to NASA's website to find information, he encountered error messages. The pages had been taken down.

"For me, personally, there’s a lot of uncertainty," he told The Huffington Post. "I’m trying to understand how this is going to affect my research, if it’s going to affect my plans in the next year. And most of the people I would ask aren’t answering because of the government shutdown ... I can't even find anything about the shutdown on the website."

Cain has been working in this field since 2010 after spending six years in academia, including time as a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He currently has a number of "stopgap opportunities" to support himself before the grant kicks in. But those will be over at the end of October. And if the shutdown isn't resolved by then, he'll be out of an income stream.

Any significant delay in his project, he worries, could have long-term impacts on his career. It would push back his research, which would delay his ability to publish papers and ultimately hurt his chances of securing future funding (which he will have to do come mid-February of next year).

Cain had turned down teacher gigs in order to pursue his research. As of now, he doesn't regret that decision.

"Hopefully this will work out," he said. "I've been working a long time to get that proposal funded. If it's funded, I really want to go after it. Hopefully it all pans out and I can do that."

All things considered, Cain may be one of the more fortunate people in his field. When the shutdown ends, his project will, in all likelihood, continue as planned. Delays might set him back, but he at least has some certainty with the grant.

Dan Kordella, by contrast, is in limbo. A year ago, he was given a grant to work at the National Cancer Institute in a lab studying drugs that can resist HIV. The grant was supposed to last two years. But in March 2013, as sequestration took effect, Kordella was told that it was being chopped in half. As of this month, he is out of the lab.

There was hope that Congress could come to some sort of agreement that restored funding levels for projects like his. But when stalled negotiations morphed into a full-blown government shutdown, that window closed.

Kordella is now unemployed and looking for work. "Everything from substitute teaching to park ranger stuff," he told HuffPost. "I'm trying to stay loosely in the biological field but not having much luck."

He hasn't applied for unemployment insurance "yet." His wife works at a number of part-time jobs, and they can get by with her salary and their savings, even with two young kids. But if the situation persists, Kordella said he could very well have to give up his career ambitions.

"I majored in biology, taught biology and chemistry, been in biology graduate school," he said. "I don't want to throw away that training and start something completely new. I'm 40 and reinventing myself is not something I'm anxious to do."

The damage done to science, like many fields affected by the government shutdown, will worsen the longer the shutdown lasts. Not only does Congress' failure to come to a budget deal eliminate chances for researchers like Kordella to get funding, it also ensures that facilities stay closed and research remains on hold.

Jonathan Lilly, an oceanographer studying ocean currents and the effect they have on the climate system, hasn't personally been impacted by the shutdown. But he's watched with concern as it has complicated and harmed his colleagues' careers. Some of them have been unable to work since the shutdown began, since the buildings where they conduct their research are owned by the government. And while missing two or three days is annoying but manageable, going a week without work can compromise a researcher's project.

"In the past thirty-six hours, I've spoken to three dozen of my colleagues around the world," Lilly wrote in an email to HuffPost that he expanded in a post on his website. "Here are some of the things I heard repeatedly: experiments jeopardized; progress on important datasets held up; educational opportunities lost; critical data streams left untended; months or years of planning wasted; international commitments at risk; careers threatened; frustration levels at the boiling point; second thoughts about working as a researcher for the federal government; and doubts about the future of oceanographic research in this country."

Lilly ends on a sobering note:

Rather than an isolated event, many researchers in my field see this as part of a continuing pattern, and perhaps, as a nail in a coffin. If my sample is at all representative, many of those affected by the furlough are using this time to re-think their career paths, to the great detriment of scientific research in our country. Many of those unaffected, myself included, are also taking heed. The shutdown sends a clear, if unintended, message to scientists. No matter who is at fault, it cannot be seen as the action of a country that is sincerely eager and able to cultivate scientific research.

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