The big news of the day is, of course, the United States government shutdown. In short, due to a lack of political consensus, many government-funded activities are grinding to a halt, science included. This is no small matter – the US National Science Foundation is sending 98% of its employees home while the National Institute of Health has introduced a halt in clinical trials. We are witnessing an unprecedented hit on state-funded science for the nation that produces the most scientific publications by a long shot.

Science, particularly big science (think CERN) depends heavily on government money. Without large federal grants many important achievements would not have happened, from the human genome project to the international space station. So while science is dependent on government, and most of academia has come to accept that, it seems absurd it should be held ransom to the political process in Washington.

So what does this mean? On practical terms, quite a lot; projects being frozen or stopped altogether, funding cycles delayed for months to years and the general machinery of scientific research taking a large blow to its capacity to operate for an undefined amount of time, as of now.

But beyond the day-to-day practicalities, this sets a precedent for the relationship between government and state-sponsored science. It sets science as a low-priority activity amongst the jobs that must be safeguarded in the event of fiscal debacle, and that is not a good thing. Here are two reasons; first, medical research. Clinical trials typically take years, if not decades to carry out – undermining these either directly by understaffing or indirectly through insufficient funding, potentially delays life-saving treatment being available to those in need.

Second, and perhaps more nuanced, is the disruption in basic research. One of the strongest arguments for funding basic research is that you never know what may turn up further down the line. Abstractions in theoretical physics lead to atomic energy. Radio was invented because a James Clerk Maxwell and came up with a theory of how electricity works. Practical applications often come from non-practical research and restricting the latter would certainly damage our chances of finding new solutions to current problems. This has real economic implications – non fossil-fuel cars? Stopping climate change? It is from the improbable hands of basic research that real solutions to these problems will come, changing the economic landscape.

So while the politicians bicker up in Capitol Hill, spare a thought for federally funded science. Scientific progress is shackled by the makings and undoings of government budget, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. This is poor policy for any country that takes investment in its future seriously.


News on the effects of the US government shutdown on publicly funded science has been published by Nature News, Science Magazine, PBS and the AAAS, among others.