The shutdown has halted important scientific research

Disrupted funding for federal science hurts Western lands and economies.

 

Increasing the temperature of the desert floor at this southeastern Utah test site helps researchers determine the effects of warming on plant and animal species.

In Southern Utah, there is a patch of desert heated by infrared lamps. The lamps hang just above the plants and soil crusts commonly found in this desert surrounding Moab. These lamps help scientists study how temperature increases impact plants and soils living in this already hot desert. On any given day science technicians can be seen reaching underneath the lamps to measure the size of each grass blade and the number of seeds on each shrub. The information gleaned helps land managers know what to expect from ecosystems as temperatures increase, allowing them to manage for both ecosystem integrity and multiple land uses as climate changes. During this partial government shutdown, however, the plants are going unmeasured, cutting off the continuous observations necessary for careful science and creating a gap in this long-term data set.

When the government partially shut down on Dec. 21, sending home employees from the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Forest Service, the important science being done across the country ground to a halt with consequences extending beyond the loss of plant measurements or the paychecks these employees rely on.

In parts of the West, where the economy is tied directly to the integrity of federal lands, using science to understand how these landscapes work and respond to change is essential to the economic well-being of the region. Economic drivers occurring on federal lands such as recreation, resource extraction, grazing and wildlife resources rely on science to inform evidence-based management. While research universities generate some of this science, the shear extent of public lands in the West requires the region to rely on government scientists to provide additional research about how to manage these lands.

Research sites in southeastern Utah are going unchecked during the government shutdown.

The partial shutdown has forced federally conducted science and the science occurring on federal lands into disarray. It has delayed or canceled conferences that are necessary for research and for sharing and learning new information. Applications for research permits on federal lands and the hiring of seasonal or contractual employees has been halted. Scientists who need research funding can’t get it. My own research exploring how nutrients move through desert soils has been impacted. Ongoing work to publish research has been delayed without access to my government collaborators, and decisions about federal fellowships I’ve applied for and am relying on to complete my dissertation research with the University of Texas at El Paso have been put on hold.

In the West, the immediate impacts extend beyond the science and scientists themselves to the volunteers, educators and visitors who are no longer able to engage with the science and science-resources the region has to offer. The loss of paychecks and visitors measurably impacts our economy. The unquantified impacts do the same, damaging the science being generated with taxpayer dollars and diminishing our ability to use science to the advantage of our landscapes and economies.

While the short-term consequences of disruption to federal and federally supported science are substantial, the long-term consequences can be severe. Entire seasons of data collection may have to be canceled due to the backlog of hiring and funding that is likely to occur. Important cultural and scientific resources on public lands face the risk of vandalization or loss without federal employees and volunteers monitoring them. Over the long haul, disruptions in funding for scientists who rely on consistent access to research sites, laboratories, seasonal personnel and volunteers can easily drive top scientists away from working for federal agencies. The likelihood of losing top federal scientist to university or private sector jobs only grows as the current shutdown becomes one of the longest in U.S. history and marks the second multiday shutdown of 2018. Without the best minds working to understand our federal lands and pressing problems, our ability to manage and adapt suffers, and so do we.

Out in the desert the plants and soils are continuing to respond to the heat-lamp induced warming with no one to track their responses. Meanwhile the average air temperatures for the region continue to climb. As land use and climate change accelerate in the West, we all lose when avoidable shutdowns degrade our ability to understand, manage and adapt to the changing world around us. In the West, continuity in science matters. Let’s communicate to our elected officials that Westerners value consistent science funding for the betterment of the lands and economies we rely on.

Kristina Young is a scientist living in Southeast Utah. She is a former Wyss Scholar for the Conservation of the American West and the host and producer of the regional science show Science Moab on KZMU.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...