How The U.S. Government Shutdown Could Impact Science

2019-04-22T15:54:48+00:00 January 22, 2018|
Screenshot of US government website shutdown notice

Credit: Public Domain

Congress was not able to come up with a deal to approve a budget for federal agencies, leading the U.S. government to shut down. Much of the staff of U.S. science and environmental agencies could be hit with furloughs, with possible lost pay.

(From National Geographic/ By Michael Greshko) — Would government research continue? How would clinical trials be treated? What happens to Superfund? Here’s a quick guide to how science may be affected by a possible shutdown, gleaned from U.S. government contingency plansrecent media reports, and archived stories from the 2013 shutdown.


The CDC would maintain some of its critical staffing, and some of its programs—such as PEPFAR, its global anti-AIDS initiative—receive funding outside of the appropriations process, meaning they would carry on as normal.

However, the CDC would furlough more than 60 percent of its workforce, according to an HHS estimate and recent Washington Post report. The remaining staff wouldn’t be able to support the CDC’s annual seasonal flu program—amid one of the roughest flus in recent memory—or maintain the agency’s outbreak detection or technical assistance functions.


More than 94 percent of the EPA’s workforce would be placed on enforced leave during a government shutdown, according to a December 2017 contingency plan drafted by the agency. However, Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the agency had enough funds to operate for a week. After that, most activities would grind to a halt, with exceptions.

Staffers are allowed to maintain scientific instruments, test animals, and controlled environments such as freezers during a shutdown. In addition, the EPA says it will maintain Superfund projects that “would pose an imminent threat to human life,” such as projects that prevent the imminent contamination of drinking water.

But for many Superfund sites, the health risks are more chronic in nature—meaning that cleanup crews at many toxic waste sites would be furloughed during a shutdown. During the 2013 shutdown, cleanup efforts were halted at 505 Superfund sites across 47 states, the EPA said in a statement to the Huffington Post at the time.


The U.S. space agency estimates that of its roughly 17,500 employees, more than 85 percent would be furloughed in the event of a shutdown. Some full-time, part-time, and on-call employees, however, would maintain the safety and security of NASA equipment and facilities—including the International Space Station. NASA policy holds that its astronauts aboard the ISS, as well as their support staff on the ground, are still on the job.

However, NASA instructors would not be at work in schools, all tours and visits to NASA facilities would be canceled, and NASA’s sprawling outreach efforts—including its website—would go quiet in the event of a government shutdown.


Department of Health and Human Services guidelines mandate that the NIH could not take on new patients in clinical trials, unless NIH Director Francis Collins deems it medically necessary. In 2013, the Washington Post reported that on average, the 2013 shutdown prevented roughly 200 people—including 30 children—from joining clinical trials each week.

The institutes’ massive grant apparatus—which gives billions of dollars in grants to researchers across the country—would also come to a screeching halt. New grant applications wouldn’t be processed, and widely used databases maintained by the NIH would not accept new data submissions. Nature reported that nearly three fourths of the NIH’s staff were placed on leave during the 2013 shutdown. At the time, some NIH researchers were forced to freeze in-progress experiments.


According to a contingency plan crafted in September 2017, the National Park Service would furlough nearly seven out of eight employees during a shutdown. Within four days, the NPS says that it would wind down activities “except for those that are essential to respond to emergencies involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

Recent reports indicate that the Trump administration is considering …

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