It's now Day 8 of the government shutdown, and a lot of people are hurting: more than 800,000 federal workers sent home without pay (soon-to-be 450,000, with the Department of Defense calling back its furloughed workers); kids with cancer being turned away from their clinical trials and needy families facing food bank shortages. Their pain is real and immediate, but some of the greatest suffering may ultimately come to our country collectively, as potentially groundbreaking climate and energy research -- not to mention policy -- is now put on hold.
We know that President Obama's climate change agenda has hit a major setback, with 94 percent of EPA employees now unable to do their jobs (including the newly tasked job of tackling carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants), but environmental innovation has been interrupted all across the board. Just a sampling:
- New vehicle fuel-economy ratings are in limbo for the time being, since the EPA also can't update its FuelEconomy.gov website. This could mean that some automakers will have to delay the launch of their new cars, since by law an EPA rating is required to be displayed on every new car sold in the US. (Those little window stickers are called Monroney stickers, by the way, after Sen. Mike Monroney. He helped pave the way for American automotive and aviation safety and who, according to Wikipedia, was also voted "nicest senator." Congress, are you listening?)
- Big solar projects like the 500 MW Palen project outside of Palm Springs, Calif. may see serious delays, since all solar permitting activities via the Bureau of Land Management are suspended during the shutdown.
- Perhaps the most sobering news: Our science and clean technology future is at stake, as institutions like Oregon State University are reporting $600,000 a day in lost research funding. That school's current research partners include (from an exhaustive list) the Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service, NOAA, NASA, and the NSF, as well as a partnership with the USGS on a major climate change research program. As of last Friday, the school had "already spent $2.4 million on being idled."
And that's just one school. Now multiply that times all the schools and facilities across the U.S. that rely on federal funds to do groundbreaking research on energy and climate change, times however many days the shutdown drags on, and you start to realize the magnitude of the knowledge and innovation that could not only be stymied, but never even realized.
Not all is lost, thankfully: The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon -- which challenges 20 collegiate teams of our best and brightest to design and build cutting-edge, yet cost-effective solar-powered houses -- is currently taking place as planned. The Decathlon has always been held on the National Mall, but this year the competition is located 3,000 miles away in Irvine, Calif., reflecting literal rays of sunshine away from the negativity in Washington.
Got a great idea for my next Innovation Earth column? Send tips, thoughts and suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.