October 15, 2013

Day 15 of Federal Government Shutdown: U.S. Scientific Enterprise — the Engine of Economic Competitiveness — Faces Calamity as DOE Labs Prepare to Close, Costing Jobs and Leaving Idle More Than $10 Billion in Facilities Paid for with Taxpayers’ Dollars

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. scientific enterprise is on the brink of a catastrophe as the U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 laboratories prepare to close at the end of the month, leaving thousands of people without jobs and shuttering more than $10 billion in facilities paid for with American tax dollars. Additionally, the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic science program, for the upcoming austral summer, is on the verge of being canceled.

As the federal government shutdown lingers, laboratories operated by the Energy Department, including Brookhaven, Fermilab, Argonne and SLAC are preparing to close and mothball facilities used by more than 50,000 scientists engaged in cutting-edge research that could lead to new drugs, materials and electronics and ground breaking discoveries.

For example, at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source — the workhorse for the U.S. community with close to 4,000 users — scientists use intense, highly focused beams of light for cutting-edge research in fields such as physics, chemistry, medicine and environmental and materials sciences. Moreover, DOE labs are also in the process of halting all expenditures such as those for construction projects, purchase orders and scientific conferences.

At the NSF, the situation is also horrific. The Magnet Lab at Florida State University, radio and optical telescopes, and other cutting-edge projects face a similar fate as the DOE Labs. In addition, no new grants are being funded, and scientists’ research projects remain in jeopardy, especially the Antarctic program which should be ramping up now. Laura Gladstone, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is deeply worried about whether she’ll be able to conduct research as part of the program.

“Shutting down the program for a few weeks at this point would mean…losing all data from the field research stations and losing all winter data for next year,” she said.

Additionally, NASA has furloughed 97 percent of its workforce, leaving vulnerable extremely sensitive and expensive equipment for projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble telescope. Even four Nobel Laureates failed to escape the impact of the government shutdown: Eric Cornell, William Phillips and David Wineland, all of whom work at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and John Mather, who works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, have been furloughed.

As the government shutdown continues and the threat of a government default looms, the scientific enterprise, the driver of innovation and jobs, remains in deep peril.

“Science is the engine of American innovation. Throwing the shutdown and default wrenches into it, wrecks it and threatens the future economic wellbeing of the country in an increasing competitive world,” said Michael Turner, president of the American Physical Society.

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