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US shutdown: a scientist’s guide

ReidBoehner260.jpgTime is running out for US congressional leaders trying to agree on spending legislation before a crucial budget deadline expires.

While the Senate’s Democratic majority leader Harry Reid (left), and Republican House Speaker John Boehner (right) continue to demand concessions from one another in an effort pass a budget for fiscal year 2011, memos circulating around key science agencies through the government reveal plans for a shutdown that will be in effect at midnight tonight (05:00 GMT) if no agreement is reached.

Administrators have been tight-lipped about such contingency plans until now, even with their own high-level employees. In some agencies, questions still remain about who will be considered “essential” during a shutdown and permitted to work, as well as which experiments and trials will be allowed to continue. Many researchers who work for the federal government are also no doubt wondering whether they will eventually be paid for any furloughs they are forced to take — as happened last time there were shutdowns, in late 1995 and early 1996.

Here is a snapshot of what is known so far at the various agencies:

At the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

-According to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) official, direct medical services and research protocols for current patients will continue at the NIH Clinical Center, but no new patients will be admitted in any of the 1443 studies now underway and no new trials will be initiated. NIH has eight new protocols ready to start next week, and they will not be initiated during a shut down. Four of the eight protocols involve children, and two of the four involve children with cancer.

-According to the HHS plan, NIH will not be making any extramural research grants or contracts. Grantees already receiving awards should be able to continue drawing funds from prior awards, unless federal staff are required to intervene.

-About 23 percent of the staff will be retained, many to protect property related to ongoing medical experiments and government property, take care of animals, and maintain computerized systems to support research and clinical patient care.

HHS Contingency Staffing Plan

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

-Almost 2500 of the agency’s 11,020 employees will be retained for activities that involve safety of human life and protection of property.

-An HHS spokesman says any ongoing outbreak investigations will continue. If there is need to respond to a new outbreak, the CDC may not be able to respond as quickly or as efficiently as usual, but there will be a response. There could also be delays in the CDC’s ability to detect outbreaks from surveillance networks.

-Consultations with clinicians to help make difficult diagnoses would be scaled back.

-Immunization programs are not likely to be impacted.

-Work at the CDC Emergency Operations Center will continue in the wake of the earthquake in Japan, and operations can be scaled up if necessary.

HHS Contingency Staffing Plan

At the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson issued a memorandum late Thursday warning that the “vast majority” of employees will go on mandatory furlough. “Only a very small number of people will be retained to perform critical duties, and those people will be notified as soon as possible.” All employees are required to report to work on Monday or Tuesday, as normally scheduled, and they will then have four hours to “shut down and secure their workstations.”

At the US Geological Survey (USGS)

-A total of 200 out of 8900 employees would remain, including those at the Volcano Observatories and Seismic Laboratories, and the Water Science Centers, who are considered vital to protect life and property.

USGS Plan in the Absence of an Appropriation

At the US Fish and Wildlife Service

-834 of 9081 employees would remain working.

-Christine Eustis, assistant regional director for external affairs for the Southeast Region of the Interior Department’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that law enforcement and firefighters will be on call or at work, as will around 100 wildlife inspectors at ports, whose salaries are paid by permit fees. Hatcheries and breederies will be staffed by at least one person. “We will make sure all wildlife under our care will be fed and cared for.” A wide variety of wildlife refuges will have to cancel public events and be closed to visitors.

Fish and Wildlife Service Contingency Plan

At the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)

-Just under 2,000 of the agency’s 13,000 employees will work through a shutdown. Many of these are investigators who will continue to inspect facilities for food and medical product safety.

-Reviews of medical product applications including new drug applications will grind to a halt. Estimated approval dates will be pushed back by the same amount of time that the government remains shut down. Advisory committee meetings scheduled during a shutdown will not be held.

-Inspections of any products subject to the alert on goods coming from areas affected by the nuclear crisis in Japan will be prioritized. There will be no interruptions in the inspection of those products. But for other food safety inspections, the FDA will be very limited in its capacity to analyze samples. Many of the scientists who analyze samples and conduct research into ways to isolate and prevent new foodborne illnesses will be furloughed.

At the Department of Energy (DOE)

-DOE labs are run by contractors who don’t need to take immediate furloughs, as most contractors have enough funding to continue for a couple of weeks or longer at least. Hugh Montgomery, the director of Thomas Jefferson National Lab, says the lab has enough funds to run for two weeks during a shutdown so that for a short-term one, “it’s not a dramatic effect.” He’s as concerned by the damage cuts could do if they are – as seems likely – part of a deal reached to keep the government open.


-Operations supporting the International Space Station will continue, as they are needed to protect the 6 astronauts on board, but the Space Shuttle operations would be placed on ice.

-A long shutdown would be likely to delay the April 29 launch date for Endeavour.

-The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is run by the California Institute of Technology, so it will continue operations, so work on the Mars Science Laboratory, to launch November this year, will not be affected.

NASA Shutdown Plan

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

-NIST will keep a handful of physicists to periodically check liquid helium cryogenic equipment during a shutdown. It would take 2 weeks to safely shut down all cryogenic equipment without damage.

United States Department of Commerce Plan for Orderly Shutdown

At the National Science Foundation (NSF)

-Most operations will cease. Researchers funded by the agency can continue to spend the award money they already have. But once that is gone, NSF will not be able to able to send them more. Grant officers warned grantees that the website will be down, including access to FastLane, used to submit grants. Officials won’t be responding to email and deadlines for annual reports or other grant reports won’t be enforced.

-The National Radio Astronomical Observatory will continue operations, as it is run by a contractor (Associated Universities).

-The Office of Polar Programs’ Antarctic and Arctic programs is continuing, to remain in contact with people “on the ice” in case of emergency.

The NSF Plan for Operations During a Funding Hiatus

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

-The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has designated nearly 400 temporary workers to shut down its facilities over the next week as well as several thousand “exempt” employees who will be necessary to maintain critical functions.

-The National Weather Service will maintain 4,016 people in order to continue to providing forecasting services; the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research will continue to pay 80 employees “to maintain climate monitoring research” and other activities; another 188 employees will maintain satellite operations.

United States Department of Commerce Plan for Orderly Shutdown

With additional reporting from Jeff Tollefson, Mitch Waldrop, Eugenie Samuel Reich and Heidi Ledford


  1. Report this comment

    Pat Daukantas said:

    What about the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory? If the Smithsonian museums are closed, will the astrophysicists have to go home?

    (I know that the NOAO facilities are run by a contractor, so I’m assuming they will stay open for the nonce.)

  2. Report this comment

    Andres said:

    I’m agree with ‘Daukantas’, what about The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory?… things are not like you thing 🙁

  3. Report this comment

    M. Suvain said:

    Am just curious, but isn’t steam composed of H2O? So, how was hydrogen split from steam to come back and react with the oxygen in the containment?

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