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Federal shutdown would muzzle federal science

Furloughed researchers would not be allowed to participate in scientific meetings.

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Living in the nation’s capital, one story has dominated the news for days: Will the federal government shut down at midnight Friday (April 8) or won’t it? In this federal town, huge cadres of people could be unceremoniously sent home – or barred from entering their offices. People with federally issued phones would have to surrender them, and workers would be prohibited from logging on to their office computers or networks.

There would be exceptions for employees deemed “essential,” though how that would be defined was still in flux as of at least Thursday.

But one thing I hadn’t appreciated until today was the potential impacts that even a brief shutdown would have on the dissemination of data. Scientific data, for instance. Such as new findings from research studies with public health implications.

I showed up for a prelude symposium associated with Experimental Biology 2011, a mammoth conference that serves as the joint annual meeting for a large and often changing group of research societies. A huge share of the anticipated 13,000 or so attendees, speakers and organizers come from the federal sector. But they have been instructed, I heard over and over, to cease and desist any participation in the meeting if the government shuts down at midnight.

Not surprisingly, all day people were checking cell phones for texts and computers for website announcements on the status of congressional budget deliberations. Unless there is a budget consensus by midnight, federal facilities – and their employees -- are to enter cold-standby status.

One woman from an Agriculture Department lab west of the Mississippi noted that if the shutdown materializes, her hotel bill and meal costs would no longer be covered. She was told to be ready to find the next flight home.

Won’t the cost of buying a no-advanced-notice ticket potentially outweigh the per diem costs of staying until her prepaid ticket was due to take her home? “Probably,” she said, “but we were given a directive.”

For the past couple of days, I’ve been emailing researchers from Munich to San Diego in hopes of lining up interviews on work they are slated to present over the next few days. Those who work at federal labs noted that they couldn’t confirm because they might be forced to stay home.

One nutrition scientist from a federal lab in Atlanta was told he couldn’t chair his session Saturday if the shutdown takes place, even though he’s already on site. Violating the directive “could result in jail time,” he said. I find it hard to believe that Uncle Sam will be sleuthing out each scofflaw, but it doesn’t matter. The intimidation factor is proving a potent deterrent.

The irony, one scientist said, is that federal workers may represent a disproportionate share of attendees that were here to present data. The federal budget has been so tight that few government scientists got permission to come to the meeting unless they were presenting research findings or running sessions.

This particular conference formally begins the first day of the potential shutdown. So most visiting researchers who were going to the meeting will be in Washington D.C. before they learn whether they have to hightail it home again. Even if the shutdown only lasted a day, the damage would have been done. Federal researchers would be gone. And their findings locked up.

Nor is this the only meeting affected. People earning a federal paycheck at every conference on every topic in every town across the nation faces the same constraints.

Most speakers or session chairs volunteer to participate. It’s not “work” in the conventional sense for them, which is why they happily give up weekends and often meet late into the night discussing their new findings or poring over controversial details of someone else’s study.

It would seem fair to at least allow them the option of participating (if they choose to) – as long as they incurred no new debt. That means out-of-towners would have to pay for their own meals or hotel bill from Saturday onward. And some researchers today said they would have considered that – except that they had been explicitly prohibited from doing so. But many at this meeting are locals who wouldn’t rack up travel expenses (such as researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Pentagon, Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department).

With luck, lawmakers will come to some agreement before out-of-town federal workers have to begin checking out.

If not, we all lose. Not only may it take a year for withheld data from federal teams to emerge (when the meeting rolls around again or some journal publishes the findings), but other researchers will also lose access to the critical acumen of furloughed colleagues. Access to questions and criticisms that might hone -- or suggest more productive avenues – of inquiry.

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