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With Shutdown Over, Scientists Assess the Damage


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. After nearly three weeks, the shutdown is finally over. The Smithsonian is open, national parks have opened up their gates, and federal labs all over the country are turning on their lights. But not everyone is back to business as usual. Many scientists who were about to start their field season in Antarctica had their trips cancelled or postponed.

Some say they may miss the entire season because of this delay. Many are still in limbo with waiting to find out. But beyond that, will the shutdown have lasting effects on American science? Will other countries be less willing to collaborate with us, or depend on is? And after the sequester, now the shutdown, what message are we sending to young scientists who want a career at NASA or NOAA or the NIH?

Give us a call. Our number's 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter, Tweet us your questions @scifri. You can also find out more information about what we're talking about this hour. Go to www.sciencefriday.com where you will find some links to our topic. Let me introduce our guests. J. Marshall Shepherd is president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the program in atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Shepherd.

J. MARSHALL SHEPHERD: Oh, it's always good to join you guys.

DANKOSKY: My other guest is Sridhar Anandakrishnan. He's a professor in the department of geosciences at Penn State University. He joins us today from WPSU. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

SRIDHAR ANANDAKRISHNAN: Thank you. It's good to be here.

DANKOSKY: So first of all I'll start with you, Dr. Anandakrishnan. You had some Antarctic research planned, which has been delayed due to the shutdown. Tell us in a nutshell here what you were planning and what's happening now.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: Yeah, so I was planning to go to a part of west Antarctica and work with some colleagues to fly an airplane over the ice sheet to measure the thickness, measure how much volume is in these and compare it to some data that were collected a few decades ago to see what the effects - changes have been in between.

DANKOSKY: Do you wait on this? Do you wait until next year? Can you salvage anything?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: We don't know yet. So NSF has been working very hard, very diligently to try and figure out how they're going to recover. We were supposed to go in the field on November 12th. We're pretty certain that's not going to happen and they haven't told us what is going to happen. I think they're going through their options. They're seeing what the resource needs are and what they can cover.

There's little bits of information trickling out as they make decisions, but our project has not been cancelled or not cancelled, so we really don't know.

DANKOSKY: Do you know of any gaps in scientific data, anything that you need to be down in Antarctica for right now to maintain or to collect?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: Yeah, absolutely. I'm collaborating with a bunch of folks on a different project - it's called a pull-net project - to put out seismometers and GPS receivers that measure how fast the glaciers are flowing and some of our instruments are down on the coast where it can show six, eight, ten feet a year and so we have to go out and dig these instruments out just about every year.

And if you don't dig one out, what could happen is that the solar panels get covered up and then the instruments stop working, so then you have a gap in the data. These are data that we've been collecting continuously for four or five years now and so it would be a great pity to now have a gap.

We have other gaps that are caused by the weather and other uncontrollables, but it's a real pity to have a gap that could have been easily avoided.

DANKOSKY: You mention the weather, so I'll bring in J. Marshall Shepherd. You wrote in a blog post this week, this is not the time to shutter outreach and communications activities that preserve human lives. Obviously a lot of the research that's being done in places like Antarctica is very important, but some of the work that you and other weather forecasters do can save people's lives.

Maybe you can talk a little bit more about your feelings surrounding this shutdown and what it means to slow down or shut down science in this way.

SHEPHERD: Yeah, I thought it was very ironic as we approached the one year anniversary of super storm Sandy, there was an outcry, for example, why are the U.S. models not keeping up with the European weather models, for example, which did a nice job of highlighting the left turn of Sandy. The irony is the shutdown sent many of the very people working on improvements to our models home.

We finally generated enough momentum to get some needed funding and some attention to improving the U.S. weather models, which are still world-class models, and then you send those folks home, and as I wrote, you know, who knows, two or three weeks of improvements to our models now could be the difference in a life in 2014 or 2015.

I mean, that's just one example. You know, another example, already there are concerns about potential gaps in our weather satellite program, particularly our polar orbiting program in a couple of years. We have federal and private colleagues and partners working to make sure that we don't have that gap, so every week, every day in my opinion, is a day towards not having a gap in our vital satellite, weather satellite coverage. And so two or three weeks certainly, you know, has an impact there in my view.

DANKOSKY: But it's not just this two or three weeks of the shutdown. You're already dealing, a lot of researchers, with the sequester cuts, kind of across the board, and then there's the uncertainty about what's going to happen in the future, the uncertainty about whether or not any of this is going to happen again.

SHEPHERD: Yeah, I agree. I mean, just as an example, on the ground example, one of our partners - I'm the president of the American Metrological Society and we have a good partnership with our colleagues with the National Weather Association. They have their annual meeting in Charleston. Many of our valued National Weather Service employees go to those meetings to share new findings, gain new understanding in methodology that they can perhaps use in practice to help saves lives in events like the Moore and El Reno tornados or Superstorm Sandy.

Guess what. Those National Weather Service folks could not go to that conference. They were told that they could not go. That's an event that we can't get back in time, even as we are open. And as you know, I'm also concerned because there are several young colleagues at weather service or people at my university who want to go work at NASA or wow, you mean I'm going to have to work for free sometimes? I may not be able to travel to conferences? That doesn't send a message that we're trying to get our best and brightest in federal service.

DANKOSKY: Dr. Anandakrishnan, how have your students been reacting? Are you hearing any of the same things, maybe some people who are just upset about where science is placed in American society right now?

ANANDAKRISHNAN: Yeah, absolutely. It's sort of an irony that I was running a conference down in D.C. on October 1st. It started on September 30th, the Monday before the shutdown, and one of the reasons we hold it in D.C. is so that our students can interact with not just other scientists but also with some of the policy folks and with funders. And of course none of those people could show up on the Tuesday and Wednesday of this conference.

And so it was a great meeting but nevertheless it was really unfortunate that they couldn't hear from the NSF, NASA folks on what priorities are going forward.

I have a student, Nick, who's supposed to be going down to Antarctica for the first time this year and he's very excited, obviously. Anybody would be. But he's also very worried and he's wondering how this is going to impact his future career. He's doing a PhD and the thing that folks done appreciate about doing fieldwork in Antarctica is that the field season there is very limited. It starts sometime in mid-November and it ends sometime in mid-January. And if you miss that window then you have to wait a whole other year, whole year to go down next year, and that's a big chunk of a student's career here.

And even if we do go down next year, NSF has no way of really guaranteeing that we'll get our work done because they've made promises for next year, for use of their resources. And so then they have to make very, very hard decisions about who gets those. Do the people who were shunted out this year get them? It's a really, really tough situation and our students have to live with that uncertainty.

DANKOSKY: Let's go to Jeff(ph) who's calling from Redwood City, California. Hi there, Jeff.

JEFF: Hi. I don't have a scientific question, but I do have another side of this and I think the whole country is pretty much on board with how the performance of our elected employees were. I work part time at the Center for Domestic Preparedness in Anniston, Alabama. That's the only place in the U.S. that U.S. allies and first and second responders can get certain types of specialized training, and were all laid off, including me.

And the problem here is they're very, very talented people down there who have many, many options and just like the secretary of defense said today, that a lot of these people have other options and they simply leave the service and not come back because there are other options. I was hired with a physician who was a captain in the Navy and he goes down there because he feels like he's giving something back, but they have cut pay and benefits back and I think when they pull stunts like this, and I think that's what it is, it damages not just science but all sorts of things that are hidden.

And I think you should point out that this whole thing and the amount of savings is teeny compared to the federal budget and the federal budget deficit.

DANKOSKY: Let me just get a - and thank you very much Jeff. Let me just get a quick comment from J. Marshall Shepherd. He's talking there about people having other options and that's what we lead off with. People have things that they could do that aren't involved in trying to find money from the federal government, worrying about this sort of thing. So does he have a point? Are we going to lose people from the sciences?

SHEPHERD: Yeah, Let me make a couple comments on that. Yeah, clearly there are options in the private sector, academic sector, but you know, as a young kid, I mean, I was inspired by the U.S. We led, we went to the moon; we, you know, we have robotic rovers moving around on Mars right now, advanced weather satellites. These are things the U.S. led. The iPhones and iPads that people have, these things don't materialize out of thin air.

They come from years and years of research and development. And when you shutter that, or you don't have the best people in science because they fear working in our federal system - our federal system has some of the best scientists, engineers and colleagues in the world at places like NASA, NOAA, EPA, DOE, NIH, but if increasingly it seems like an environment where it's not suitable for science, boy, I really fear there, you know, that our federal science and technology cadre is going to suffer. I've even seen recent articles of scientists that are leaving and going overseas because of funding and the environment is better.

One other thing I want to quickly say, while there's the appearance that this is just an issue affecting the feds, I was a scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center for 12 years, a center that has, oh, 10,000 or so people. Only 2 or 3,000 of those people are federal NASA employees. There are many contractors that work for NASA and other places. As the caller just said, oftentimes when this happens, the private sector is also impacted has a very significant impact on our economy.

DANKOSKY: J. Marshall Shepherd is president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the program in atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia in Athens. Thank so much for joining us once again.

SHEPHERD: Thank you.

DANKOSKY: Sridhar Anandakrishnan is a professor in the department of geosciences at Penn State University. Thank you so much for joining us and good luck getting back down to Antarctica.

ANANDAKRISHNAN: Thank you very much, and you're welcome.

DANKOSKY: Now after our break we'll be talking infographics - the good, the bad, the misleading, and how you can tell the difference. Stay with us.



(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.