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AAAS Testimony: End U.S. Shutdown Now

Testimony from AAAS CEO Alan Leshner at a Senate hearing. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

The U.S. Government shutdown has dealt another "serious blow to an already beleaguered American scientific enterprise," which saw federal R&D expenditures decline by an alarming 16.3 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2013, the AAAS CEO testified today at a U.S. Senate hearing.

In addition, said Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science, "Federal R&D as a share of gross domestic product has declined from 1.27 percent of GDP to roughly 0.82 percent today." Continuing U.S. budget cuts to science as well as the across-the-board reductions mandated by a budget sequestration have hit the scientific community hard, he said. By comparison, Leshner reported earlier this year, Israel and Japan spend a total of 4.2 percent and 3.5 percent of their economies, respectively, on R&D. South Korea's science expenditures are increasing rapidly, heading for 4 percent of GDP.

"Losing our eminence in science would be a drastic consequence [of the shutdown] that likely would result in fewer foreign scientists coming to study and work in the United States, fewer U.S.-based science and technology breakthroughs, and fewer US startup companies and jobs," Leshner told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

"Undermining the nation's support for research will not resolve our fiscal problem," he added. "Instead, it will exacerbate it, slowing down the engine of discovery that drives innovation and economic growth." He urged policymakers to "come together and resolve your differences over the budget agreement in order to provide a powerful legacy of scientific discovery and innovation for future generations."

Other witnesses at the hearing included Alaskan fisherman Captain Keith Colburn, star of the Discovery television show, Deadliest Catch; the Honorable Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); the Honorable Marion C. Blakey, president and chief executive officer of the Aerospace Industries Association; and Rachel Weintraub, legislative director and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

The hearing was convened by Senate Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV. "The damage and the disruption caused by this government shutdown are very, very real," Rockefeller said at the event. "We often talk about the economy in abstract terms, but what we're really talking about is millions of skilled and productive Americans, in both the public and private sectors, whose hard work and dedication make our country strong."

Leshner detailed the impacts of the shutdown across seven key science-related agencies: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Department of Energy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

AAAS on 1 October had reported that 73 percent of NIH staff and 99 percent of NSF staff have experienced immediate furloughs as a result of the shutdown. At the hearing, he described the effects of the shutdown on specific scientific activities. At the NIH Clinical Center, for example, current patients are continuing to receive care, but very few new patients are being accepted, which means no care for most of the 200 critically ill patients per week, including 30 children who typically would register for clinical trials. At least six new clinical trials have been deferred, he said. One Boston-area patient initially was denied a critical treatment until a member of Congress intervened to arrange for an exemption, Leshner noted in his written testimony. Although some NIH staff members are continuing to care for laboratory animals and critical infrastructure, new grant awards will be delayed, and monitoring programs of the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration will soon cease, he added.



Captain Keith Colburn (right) and Alan Leshner.
[AAAS/Carla Schaffer]

At the NSF, the entire upcoming field season of the U.S. Antarctic season will need to be cancelled if the shutdown continues beyond 14 October. "This could jeopardize the entire research season for hundreds of important projects in astronomy, particle physics, and weather, and many of these projects have been many years in the works."

Meanwhile, some $500,000 spent by NASA on data collection could go to waste as a result of radio telescopes darkened by the shutdown, and plans for future missions such as the James Webb Space Telescope will have to slow or come to a stop, according to Leshner. NOAA's environmental monitoring, including drought management and efforts to identify algae blooms in the Great Lakes, had to be suspended because scientists handling the work were sent home.

Immediate economic impacts will also be felt by fishermen like Colburn, Leshner added. "The winter king crab season for Bering Sea fishermen will be suspended because the scientists and other government workers needed to process information and develop the regulations for the season have been furloughed," he said.

No one will be reading earthquake seismographs for the USGS, Leshner noted, and scientific programs intended to advance energy efficiency have been effectively closed. National laboratories "will be shielded for a time" because of other budget authority and resources, Leshner said, but the Sandia Laboratory in New Mexico, for instance, plans to shut down 21 October. A critical component of the nation's nuclear defense enterprise, the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, has initiated a partial shutdown. Most staff at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Economic Research Service have been furloughed.

At universities, researchers working under federal grants will be able to continue their work until funds expire or they require government oversight. "If their research relied on access to a federal database or equipment … then their research will be severely hampered," Leshner reported. "We learned recently that geneticists were unable to receive a shipment of fruit flies because the European supplier had suspended shipments to the United States because the closure of the USDA means the flies cannot clear customs."

Since World War II, Leshner said, more than half of all economic growth in the industrialized world has been driven by innovation and technological progress. "Public research funding has helped plant the seeds that have spawned the Global Positioning System, the laser, Google, and countless other beneficial technologies in addition to medical advances that have helped save the lives of millions of heart disease, cancer and diabetes patients, among others."

Leshner called on policymakers to "ensure sustained and robust support for scientific research."

Also at the hearing, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said that her organization has furloughed 383 of 405 employees. Since the shutdown, she said, the board has been unable to investigate 14 significant accidents. Those events included a bus crash that killed eight people in Tennessee, an aviation accident that claimed four lives in Arizona, and the death of a worker on the Washington, D.C. Metro system.

Marion C. Blakey, head of the Aerospace Industries Association, said that the shutdown has significantly affected the private-sector workforce, particularly those at small companies, as well as federal employees. The federal funding lapse poses significant risks for NASA's weather satellite development work, including the Joint Polar Satellite System that is critical for providing warnings of tornadoes and severe storms. The shutdown also caused the Federal Aviation Association to send nearly 15,000 employees home, she noted, and many airplanes have remained uncertified.

Testifying on behalf of the fishing community, Captain Keith Colburn noted that the Alaskan king crab fishing industry is managed under a strict quota system that lets each fisherman take a percentage of the total catch. "The Alaska king crab stock is healthy, and with a scientifically based conservative management approach, overfishing does not occur," he said. Federal observers oversee the harvest, and fishermen pay taxes to cover the government's management costs, he reported, but NOAA employees have been furloughed, and therefore fishing vessels have been docked. "This is the first time in 28 years that I have not been on the Bering Sea in the month of October," he said.

Rachel Weintraub of the Consumer Federation of America said that "under the Government shutdown, many of the consumer protections we depend upon have been significantly curtailed." The FAA has furloughed 15,514, including most of the safety inspection force. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 333 of 597 workers have been sent home, with dire consequences for vehicle safety recalls and other consumer protection activities. Further, the Consumer Product Safety Commission is being staffed by only 23 employees during the shutdown. She cited tragic cases of small children being killed in accidents that have not been investigated as a result of the shutdown. Oversight by other agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Federal Trade Commission also have been hamstringed by the shutdown.

Deborah A.P. Hersman (left), Marion C. Blakey and Rachel Weintraub (right) [AAAS/Carla Schaffer]

Watch video of The Impacts of the Government Shutdown on Our Economic Security Senate hearing covered by C-SPAN.


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs

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