The United States government, after congress failed to strike an accord on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, shutdown on Oct. 1. The end result could be catastrophic for a number of federal agencies, including government-funded bodies involved in scientific research.
Scientific Institutions Go Dark
A number of scientists have been furloughed and informed not to attend their place of work, whilst many laboratories and offices remain either out of action, or are currently being run by a skeleton staff. A number of government websites, meanwhile, remain shutdown and are not being updated; this includes NASA, whose website and television services have gone dark.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are no longer involved in processing grants, and a number of important research initiatives currently hang in the balance.
As a result of the government shutdown, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) has shuttered all of its facilities, situated across North America. These include the following telescopes:
- Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia
- Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) in Socorro, New Mexico
- Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA) in Socorro, New Mexico
When the shutdown had initially commenced, the NRAO had approximately one week’s worth of funding available, which was surplus from the previous fiscal year, to temporarily continue with its operations.
According to a Nature news blog, a small crew of security staff will remain in place near the antennas to safeguard the premises. Alas, most of the other employees, from the 475-strong team working for the NRAO, have now been placed on furlough. The facility will be minimally powered, and receivers will be monitored to ensure they remain cryogenically cooled; if the receivers were allowed to heat up, and then had to be cooled down at a later date, in the event that operations were to resume, this would be more costly.
Thousands of astronomers utilized the data from the afore-mentioned telescopes to perform important research studies, in attempting to explore a great many cosmological mysteries. As a result, the government shutdown is responsible for stalling a number of these scientific research endeavors.
Is ALMA Next?
Anthony Beasley, the director of the NRAO, indicates that the closure of the organization’s numerous facilities could be a short-term issue, and states that operations could be restarted within two to three days, after the showdown on Capitol Hill ends. However, speaking to ScienceInsider, Beasley states that shutting down these highly advanced telescopes is not “… as easy as flicking a switch.”
Meanwhile, the NRAO has around one month’s worth of funding for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), based in Chile. ALMA is a radio telescope array, offering five times the resolution of Hubble, and had recently captured stunning images of a star emerging to life (Herbig-Haro 46/47), as large plumes of gas streamed through the empty void of space. Ultimately, however, even this telescope remains unsafe.
As the government shutdown enters its fifth day of enforcement, following the fiscal budget stalemate, North America’s infrastructure and economy remains precarious. Citizens are no longer able to take advantage of a number of services, and operation of national parks, monuments, museums and call centers have been halted. In addition according to USA.gov, the U.S. government’s web portal, Education, pensions and veteran compensation, alongside a host of other benefits, could be slashed in the event the government shutdown endures for a protracted period.
As the shutdown rolls on, unabated, more highly-respected scientific institutions face considerable financial difficulties, during a period when harsh government cutbacks are already biting. Let us hope the political wrangling subsides, so further casualties are not witnessed.
By: James Fenner
USA.gov Shutdown Information Link