If the government shuts down, key scientists still have to work over the holidays

On the eve of yet another government shutdown, the sprawling
federal science and environment apparatus has plunged into
uncertainty.

On Friday morning, Trump tweeted
that unless Senate Democrats acquiesce to his late-breaking demand
for billions of dollars to build his border wall, a shutdown
“will last for a very long time.” That means funding for

hundreds of thousands of federal government employees
will
likely end at midnight on Friday, forcing an indefinite period of
unpaid leave just before the holidays.

For government scientists (and scientists who receive government
funding), that uncertainty will hamper the nuts and bolts of
studies already underway, delay the start of planned work, screw up
holiday plans, and even threaten public safety.

These effects would be widespread, and in some cases, permanent
— and at a time when
we don’t have a moment to lose
to address our shared climate
emergency. And since science is done by actual people, this chaos
is personal.

For the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the
parent organization of the National Weather Service, certain
“excepted” employees who are considered critical to public
safety, like hurricane hunters or operational weather forecasters,
will be required to report to work, even without the guarantee of
pay. The rest, about 50 percent,
will be sent home
.

Justin Gibbs is part of that latter 50 percent. He’s a
meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Warning Decision
Training Division in Norman, Oklahoma, and works to make sure that
all forecasters nationwide are on the top of their game in advance
of extreme weather events by preparing courses and conducting
trainings, specifically on tornadoes and flash floods.

“I’ll just be furloughed, but I do feel awful for my
operational teammates that have everything thrown up in the air,”
Gibbs said. “I think we would all much rather be able to focus on
executing the mission and doing our jobs.”

Nick Underwood, an “excepted” NOAA hurricane hunter based in
Tampa, Florida, is a government shutdown newbie. It’s not
hurricane season, so there will very likely be no hurricanes to
chase, but according to the laws that govern shutdowns, all
approved leave is cancelled — which
includes holiday plans
. That could make it illegal for
Underwood to take a day off, even though he knows he’ll have
nothing to do.

“There’s no crystal clear direction of what the actual
interpretation of the law is,” Underwood said. “Talking with
coworkers who have been through shutdowns before like the one in
2013 — the guidance changes every time.”

Morgan Berry, a forecaster at the National Weather Service
Forecast Office in Mobile, Alabama, told me the shutdown is causing
her additional holiday anxiety. Since she is considered an
essential employee, she would be required to work after initially
requesting Christmas off.

“I did not have any grandiose holiday plans, but I was hoping
to have time off to relax and just enjoy life for a day or two,”
Barry said. And then there’s the financial hit — she says she
has a “small emergency fund,” but after paying for presents for
her family and with no guarantee of pay in the short term, she’s
a little anxious. “All I can think of is ‘what happens if my
car breaks down on the way to work’ or ‘what if I get really
sick and have to go to the hospital?’” she said.

Since Stephen Clouse, a contractor who works to maintain the
weather.gov website, isn’t a government employee, he’ll be sent
home. “Most of us are pretty passionate about what we do in the
public sector, so all this mess just hurts the organization and
delays great things we’re working on,” he said.

NASA, which manages climate-related satellites, submitted a

revised shutdown plan
to the White House this week. The plan
would restrict the agency to the “protection of life and
property.” That may mean that the maintenance of weather and
climate-tracking satellites already in space would continue, but
their data may not be available on the NASA website — removing
access to critical tools that scientists use for public safety.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s
contingency plan
says that it plans to use funds carried over
from previous years to keep most of its staff in the office

for at least two weeks
, although it would halt cleanup at
Superfund sites. The National Parks Service, in contrast,
would leave National Parks open and unattended
, prompting
concern for the safety of wildlife and visitors.

One piece of good news is that NORAD — the North American
Aerospace Defense Command, a part of the U.S. military — has
promised to continue its annual tradition of tracking Santa on
Christmas Eve, technically a volunteer activity for which employees
are not paid.

In the event of a government shutdown, NORAD
will continue with its 63-year tradition of NORAD Tracks Santa on
Dec. 24. Military personnel who conduct NORAD Tracks Santa are
supported by approximately 1,500 volunteers who make the program
possible each and every year. pic.twitter.com/fY0oyjrdDc

— NORAD & USNORTHCOM (@Norad_Northcom)
December 21, 2018

And there’s a risk that the shutdown will cause lasting
scientific harm. Mike MacFerrin, a polar scientist at the
University of Colorado, applied
this summer for a federal grant
to study the Greenland ice
sheet and collect priceless data to further our understanding of
the potential for rapid sea level rise. He’s waiting to hear back
on the grant any day now, but he’s not sure if the trip will
happen, even if he finds out he been awarded the grant.

An extended shutdown “could tank the project, or put it off
for a full year, even if we eventually get approved for funding,”
MacFerrin said. “The stress is a background cloud that is always
there, and this makes the cloud a little darker.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline
If the government shuts down, key scientists still have to work
over the holidays
on Dec 21, 2018.

Source: FS – All – Science – News
If the government shuts down, key scientists still have to work over the holidays