The Big Freeze: scientists obstructed by the US government shutdown

Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

By Abigail Pavey

Temperatures plummet across North America but the United States federal government has been suffering from a more chilling type of freeze – federal paralysis. In pursuit of his wall, President Donald Trump started the longest government shutdown in modern US history and as a result, science across the globe was forced to take a backseat.

Trump is not one for keeping his opinions quiet, whether that’s his disregard for global warming as “created by and for the Chinese” or his thoughts on vaccines – “I’m against them in one massive dose. Spread them out…and autism will drop!” – he doesn’t let much go un-tweeted. As well as being simply a ‘keyboard warrior’ in the virtual world, Trump’s well-documented disregard for evidence-based decisions, coupled with the recent prolonged government shutdown, is having a very real catastrophic effect on US and global scientific research, as well as on drug development and the laws protecting humanity’s health and environment.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent federal agency, was established to promote the progress of science. With an annual budget of $7.8 billion (Fiscal Year 2018), they fund approximately 24% of federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. From the start of the shutdown, they were unable to process new grants or provide access to pre-approved funding.

Furthermore, meetings, conferences, forums and flights were also cancelled across the US preventing people presenting data and beginning critical collaborations within the science world.

Amber Lucas, a graduate from University of Pittsburgh, applied for a grant from the NFS to start a new biotech company. With the grant approved, 2019 was the year the company was supposed to get started up. However, she was left unable to access the money, and told The Scientist that she is “kind of twiddling [her] thumbs” and “has no income right now”.

Ecologist Emilie Champagne from Quebec City has been completing a long-term project with US Department of Agriculture funded co-workers, but was unable to contact her colleagues for approval of the final draft. She has said “The longer we wait, the more new research there is, and there’s also an increased chance we’re going to get scooped,”.

The shutdown has also affected students in Oxford. Fiona Kendall is a 4th year Chemist carrying out her research project and needs data on the methane-collision cross section from the HITRAN database – she commented “I need it to carry out most of my calculations, and I just can’t access it”.

The environmental impacts have also been astounding; to name just two examples, the FDA was unable to pay the inspectors that make sure foods are safe and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not monitor the presence of toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and other pollutants in air and water.

Frustration among the scientific community is growing, but it’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Trump administration’s attitude toward science. A report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists states that the administration has shown “a pervasive pattern of sidelining science in critical decision making”. It documents 80 attacks on science by administration officials. For example, in 2017 Trump signed an executive order to dismantle the EPA. He also introduced a “two-for-one” rule which means agencies must remove two existing safeguard rules for each new regulation that they issue.

In these challenging times, it is important that scientists come together as a community and support the important research that continues to improve our health, environment and technology.


The United States Congress has power over the budget and the responsibility for assigning government funds. Each fiscal year bills and appropriations are drafted and sent for approval by the House of Representatives and the Senate. If successful, they go to the current President of the United States. If the president signs, the bills become law, money is distributed to the government agencies and there is no shut down. However, if the president does not approve, then all non-essential work within the Executive Departments of the federal government ceases.