The federal shutdown sucks. The Panda Cam is off. You can't look at NASA's astronomy picture of the day, much less see hurricane updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—where the limited number of non-furloughed employees are skipping vacations and trying not to give birth while monitoring brewing tropical storms. Oh, and there's a salmonella outbreak, but CDC food safety workers were out on furlough.
Science is taking an especially hard hit while the government dukes it out, as an editorial in this week's Nature reminds us. More than 98 percent of the National Science Foundation's employees can't work. Most of the National Institutes of Health has been furloughed too, putting important grant work in the crosshairs.
"There is a veneer of continuity. But it is an illusion," Nature writes. "Clinical trials will not begin. Grant applications will not be evaluated. Even grants that have been awarded are in jeopardy if the cheque was not in the post."
Most science is a slow trudge toward discovery. Continuity is key to collecting reliable data. And timing is key, whether we're talking about rocket launches or biomedical research.
The damage being done to science—the slow business of meticulous data gathering—is not as immediately apparent as in other arenas. But it is insidious. A missed moment in a data campaign may not reveal its importance until much later. A talented scientist, fed up with budget vagaries, might seek greener pastures. And an experiment not performed might seem to be no worse than an unasked question.