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Seeing Green: Neither Dollars Nor Sense

One week before my grant submission deadline, my internal procrastinator finally decided to get serious. I fired off drafts to collaborators, requests for letters of recommendation to my mentors, and one very clumsy research summary to an extraordinarily tolerant friend. And then I sat down at my computer and pulled up the National Science Foundation’s grant application webpage.

Only to be greeted by a white screen and a few paragraphs of text.

Bluntly translated, the website read: “We’re closed because the Federal Government is shut down. We’ll let you know what we plan to do with grant deadlines and whatnot whenever Congress gets their act together. Carry on doing your science if you have money for it. If not, sorry – we won’t be cutting any checks right now, either.”

Oops. I thanked my lucky stars that I’d downloaded the research proposal instructions before the shutdown took them offline, apologized to my letter-writers for the confusion, and figured I’d be grateful if this bought me time for a few extra rounds of spell-check.

Every year, the NSF provides more than $6 billion in research funding to scientists across the United States — and to US citizens working abroad. It funded the undergraduate field research that cemented my interest in science, let me spend the second year of my Masters degree on a thesis project that truly excited me, and is currently footing the bill for a high-risk (and hopefully high-reward) chunk of my doctoral dissertation. For scientists active in my field of ecology and evolution, whose questions don’t always link clearly to medicine, commercial interests, or other “applied” results, NSF’s “pure science” funding can mean the difference between leading your field to the next great discovery, or watching your bright ideas fade into hazy sundreams.

The NSF isn’t the only government agency that funds this basic research. Also currently closed for business are: the National Institutes of Health, whose potentially life-saving clinical trials are affected just as much as the research money it directs toward cell biology and genetics; the Environmental Protection Agency, which happens to be mid-rule on several important pollutants; NASA, except for a skeleton crew keeping an eye on the space station astronauts; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where the National Weather Service employees are frustrated about working for free.

No matter how temporary the closure, the impacts are being felt immediately as a cost to human health (We’re not monitoring the start of the flu season!) and environmental monitoring (We’ve shut down non-essential measurements and lost access to some key datasets).

And soon enough, the longer-term impacts will be irreversible.

I cringed as I read last week’s report on our Antarctic research stations. On the cusp of launching their Summer fieldwork (Remember, seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere), dozens of scientists now have to tell their teams that, with Federal funding dialed down to zero, the research stations they planned to use will now need to shut their doors. This is appalling news – not just for those (like myself) with a bizarre fondness for weird microbes, or others (read as: normal people) who just love penguins – for a planet’s worth of humans who are struggling to understand just how much they are impacting the global climate. If funding doesn’t resume in a matter of weeks, we could lose this year’s chance for on-the-ground monitoring of critical climate cues like ice sheet thickness, melting rates, and seasonal ecology dynamics.

Crises like this raise red flags about the future reliability of public science funding.

As the United States dials back its research fleet, people like James Cameron are mounting solo expeditions to the sea floor, and Google executives are bankrolling 270-foot research vessels. We’re actively privatizing manned space flight. Increasingly, my colleagues in academia are securing multi-year positions through funding from private donors and organizations. Is the future of American scientific advance private?

If it is, I can’t help but voice the classic defenses of government investment in the sciences. Who will pay for research that doesn’t have an obvious commercial benefit? Who will pay for research that isn’t charismatic? Who will pay for research that isn’t trendy in our present-day culture of flash-in-the-pan Twitter hashtags?

While I applaud private investment in scientific research, I’m not sure it has the staying power of the United States government – and the economy and tax dollars that back it. But then again, these days I’m not exactly confident in the government, either. Of course, I’m still refreshing the NSF’s website. Every thirty minutes.

Holly welcomes reader questions, comments, and offers of postdoctoral grant money to work on those #wickedcool #microbes at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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Holly Moeller

Holly Moeller

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).