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Government Shutdown, Science Suspended

As the clock winds down toward a potential shutdown of the U.S. federal government, many observers doubt a deal will be struck in time.

A shutdown would send at least 800,000 federal workers home temporarily until Congress compromises on a budget, and only employees deemed “necessary to protect life or property" will stay on the job. That includes uniformed military personnel, federal law enforcement, and guards for government buildings and facilities.

The U.S. Capitol Building
Image Credit: Tom Harris

So what does this mean for federal scientists and their supporting staff? Many federal scientists will be sent home during a potential shutdown, but plans vary significantly for different federal agencies. Here's a quick breakdown for a few agencies supporting physics research:

NASA


Based on NASA's contingency plans, Space.com estimated that roughly 600 of the 18,000 NASA workers would stay on the job during a shutdown. That's a paltry 3 percent.

A portion of those 600 employees will ensure that astronauts on the International Space Station will stay safe and in contact with ground personnel. Additionally, satellites in operations mode will require staff during a shutdown, and other staff will guard NASA facilities.

Not all people working on NASA projects directly work for the federal government, however. Contract workers may continue doing their job if those contracts were already set to continue through this time period. The overall effect on NASA's contractors remains nebulous due to the variety of contractors and agreements already in place.

Department of Energy


The Department of Energy funds 10 national labs, including Fermilab, SLAC, and Brookhaven. Under the department's contingency plan, 1,113 of the department's 13,814 workers will be retained during a shutdown.

Also, 3,106 employees are already paid from separate accounts, so they should continue working.

In general, private companies (usually comprised of universities), run the day-to-day operations of these labs on behalf of the Department of Energy. Contracts made between these companies and DOE should allow for operations to continue for a few weeks, as would have been the case last time Congress flirted with a government shutdown in 2011.

National Science Foundation


NSF doles out individual grants to scientists across the country to fund their own research projects, and this agency will be hit especially hard in the event of a shutdown.

NSF has about 2,000 staff and on-site contractors, but only 30 employees will remain to protect the property.

NIST


The National Institutes of Standards and Technology, which falls under the Department of Commerce, would shutdown most of its operations. Although the agency's contingency plan is somewhat vague, it seems that very few employees would continue working if the government shuts down.

Congress


Although a shutdown would broadly stymie scientific research, don't fret, readers! Congresspeople will continue to draw checks from their salary even if the government shuts down. They are, after all, "essential personnel."

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