Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Speaking of Science: Back to work

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Rocket Park at Johnson Space Center. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

On Monday, with the shutdown over, federal scientists went back to work. And not a moment too soon.

At the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, morale is good, said engineer Holly Griffith, a member of the Orion program, which is developing a spacecraft to send astronauts to deep space. The offices survived the shutdown in decent condition, even as custodial staff at the facility dropped from 48 to 17 in mid-January. Last Thursday, employees were being asked to volunteer to clean the space center's toilets, according to a NASA manager's widely shared tweet. Senior staff asked the self-enlisted cleaners to stop after media picked up the message. ("We don't want volunteers cleaning bathrooms," said a Jan. 25 email, shared with The Washington Post, sent to space center staff. "At least not yet.")

Still, Griffith was concerned about possible delays to the Orion program. "We have to justify our budget on a regular basis to Congress. So when we're not on time or on schedule but we're still asking them to give us more money, and this happens more than once, they get frustrated."

In 2017, hurricanes pummeled NASA's Texas and Florida facilities and a tornado struck the rocket factory in New Orleans. "That hit us hard. Now we have this shutdown," she said. Congress only has "so much patience, regardless of what our reasoning is."

Samples of bees sent to the Agriculture Department's Bee Research Laboratory in Maryland were kept in a cooler during the shutdown and seem usable, said biologist Jay Evans, the lab's research leader. Some may have the highly contagious American foulbrood disease. "We will be slow to go through them since more are coming now."

The furlough was "slowly strangling science," said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Maryland. Corb calculated how much grant money the National Science Foundation distributed last year in the same December-to-January period. From Dec. 22, 2017 through Jan. 25, 2018, the NSF awarded 465 grants for a total of $139.2 million. During the 34-day shutdown, the NSF awarded nothing.

More than 80 review panels of scientists, who convene to assess grant proposals, were also canceled.

A "tremendous backlog" of grant proposals awaits, said Angela Wilson, a chemistry professor at Michigan State University who directed the NSF's chemistry division from 2016 to 2018. "This is usually the busiest time of year for National Science Foundation, at least. And so this is going to be very very, very, very challenging to recover from."

Shorter shutdowns, like the three-day closure in 2018, have led to months-long grant delays. Scientists on review panels, who work at universities and institutions scattered across the country, must find a new time to meet. One colleague who previously applied for an NSF grant endured "a six-month delay after a three-day shutdown," Corb said.

Corb said it will take months or even years to reveal the extent of the shutdown's damage to science. "The entire company of Google was really started off of an NSF grant," Corb said. NSF-funded research led to the gene-editing tool CRISPR. And lasers. "Without lasers, you don't have smartphones, compact discs or people harassing Tom Brady in the AFC game." Corb wondered: How many Googles, lasers and CRISPRs weren't funded during the shutdown?

Jan. 31 was scheduled to be NASA's Day of Remembrance, which honors lives lost in the Apollo 1 fire and the Columbia and Challenger disasters, though Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator, postponed it to an unspecified later date, citing the shutdown.

"We always have a flyover and a moment of silence and it's really moving," Griffith said. "The fact that we have to postpone it was really hard, at least for me."


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