Federal Government Shutdown Stalls Great Lakes Research

Frozen Lake Erie in January 2019 [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]
Frozen Lake Erie in January 2019 [Elizabeth Miller/ideastream]
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Kent State University professor Dr. Anne Jefferson is not a federal employee, but she and other science professors and researchers at universities across the Great Lakes say they’re being affected by the partial government shutdown.

“We can’t get data, we can’t talk to collaborators, we can’t get answers from program officers,” said Jefferson.

She uses data from the National Weather Service and other federal agencies in her hydrology class – teaching her students how to use data to solve water resource management issues.

But the shutdown has required her to seek data alternatives including data from Canada.

“I’m having to evaluate on a day by day and week by week basis,” explained Jefferson. “Do I need to change this assignment, what can I show them in class today?”

Jefferson started the #ScienceShutdown hashtag on Twitter because she didn’t see many people talking about the ripple effects of the shutdown.

“Starting the Science Shutdown hashtag was just a way to get out some of my own nervous energy about it,” said Jefferson, “but also to spark a conversation and get people thinking about these spillover effects.”

The shutdown has also affected University of Toledo professor Dr. Christine Mayer and her work on invasive grass carp.

Mayer’s project is funded by the US Geological Survey. Some of her collaborators also rely on federal funding, including a student contractor who recently graduated. The contractor does field work and processes samples of grass carp collected from the Sandusky River. She’s been furloughed since December. Now she’s looking for babysitting work.

Mayer is worried about how the shutdown might look to future scientists.

“Grad students in my lab and other labs are watching this, and I think it’s very discouraging to young people who are just starting out their science careers,” said Mayer.

University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Dr. Jay Austin’s latest project examines seasonality — how the lakes behave in the spring.

He’s relying on funding from the National Science Foundation to replace a piece of monitoring equipment. And without that money, his work might be pushed back a full year.

“What was going to be this big coordinated project is going to be spread out very unsatisfyingly over two years,” said Austin. “So we’ll do some of the work, and there will still be some stuff for students to work on, but not the full and comprehensive data set we had hoped for and planned for.”

Austin says he spoke recently with a meteorologist, who can no longer get lake temperature data. The information helps predict lake effect snow. He says that’s an example of a non life-threatening, but impactful consequence of the shutdown.

“We’re still getting weather forecasts, but the modeling that goes into determining lake surface temperatures, for instance, is considered nonessential and therefore isn’t being done right now,” said Austin.

For regional environmental groups, there’s concern about who is watching and protecting the environment when the U.S. EPA isn’t available.

“Our water system, our air doesn’t look to see whether the government is open or not,” said the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Howard Learner. “We rely upon the U.S. EPA to provide data and information, and to make sure healthy clean air is protected.”

For Joel Brammeier of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, he sees this shutdown as a peek into what it’d be like without federal support for the Great Lakes. He’s concerned for environmental protection but also how prepared the federal government is if an emergency does happen.

“Every day that we continue the shutdown, we have a greater risk that something is going to go under the radar, some box is not going to be checked, some protection is not going to be in place, and eventually people will get hurt as a result of that,” said Brammeier.

Whenever the government does reopen, there will be a lot of work to do.

Dr. Jefferson of Kent State has plans to submit a grant proposal to USGS. Initially due January 31st, the deadline has now been changed to one month after the government reopens. And she can’t communicate with a USGS scientist she’s collaborating with for the proposal, either.

“I am anxious, frustrated, annoyed, I’m sad – I’m sad for my friends,” said Jefferson.

Jefferson says she doesn’t go too long without feeling the impact of the shutdown. She recalls an email she received Wednesday morning from a prospective student with a message that her graduation application was incomplete because she could not receive a letter of recommendation from a federal employee.

“This is how intricately tied my career is to the federal government,” said Jefferson. “When you stop the federal government from doing its job, you really make it hard for me and for tens of thousands of other scientists to do our jobs.”

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