Government Shutdown: Bad for Insect Science

Street Sign, Eastern Market

The government shutdown has lasted more than two weeks—far longer than I personally expected—and the debt-ceiling deadline looms this Thursday. The impact on scientific research and general public health has been well documented. But how is the shutdown affecting research on insects and crop protection? And how will those impacts continue even if the shutdown ended today?

It’s nearly impossible to get answers from scientists who work for the federal government. Most emails to these contacts are met with automated out-of-office responses saying they’ve been furloughed. This is no surprise considering how many people are on an unwanted break. According to CNN, 98% of the National Science Foundation is out, along with almost three-quarters of the National Institutes of Health and two-thirds of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As for the agencies most relevant to insects and crop protection: the Environmental Protection Agency lost around 94% of its employees, and while the Department of Agriculture has fared better, many of its scientists are furloughed and funding to some USDA projects is at a standstill.

One way around the federal out-of-office emails is to speak to government scientists’ partners in both academia and the private sector. Over the past few days, I checked with around half a dozen such scientists, as well as with the Entomological Society of America. Many said they have had no contact with their federal counterparts, but all had insight into how the shutdown is messing with research.

It doesn’t look great. The shutdown corresponds to a vital window for many agricultural pests. According to Anne Nielsen, an extension specialist at Rutgers University: “Any delays in research at this time can set research back a whole year. When you work with agricultural pests, there is a seasonality to the work.”

This is true for Nielsen’s research on pests that attack apple trees, peach trees, and wine grapes, such as the brown marmorated stink bug. This invasive insect is already in 40 states and causes millions of dollars of damage annually. The bugs move into houses from late September to early October, where they spend the winter, and observing this behavior could give entomologists insight on how to exploit it.

Nielsen says part of the problem is that the USDA funds her research through the Farm Bill, the fate of which is tied up with passing the federal budget. Without the funding, her team has no money to pay salaries for the scientists, grad students, undergrads, technicians, and post-docs necessary to do the research.

The delayed Farm Bill also stymies work on crop pollination alternatives, a key area of research considering the decline in important pollinating bees. Rufus Isaacs, an entomologist at Michigan State University who oversees a large crop pollination project, says: “Funding has run out for many team members, and is running out for the rest. We are making daily decisions on what to focus on with the remaining resources.”

Chris Bergh, an entomologist at Virginia Tech who also studies marmorated stink bugs, voices similar concerns. While his funding has not been disrupted, his group needs to submit a proposal for the money needed to continue its work. With the shutdown, that proposal and its approval face delays, putting the remainder of the project in jeopardy.

The ESA cites research on other seasonal invasive pests. The shutdown stalls, for example, work on the emerald ash borer, which threatens ash trees, and the Asian citrus psyllid, which carries the bacteria that causes citrus greening disease and is particularly bad news for oranges and other major citrus crops.

The shutdown is bad for citrus crops in a financial sense, too. Elizabeth Grafton-Cardwell, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside, points to the Fuller rose beetle. While the beetle doesn’t damage the fruit, it deposits eggs on it; many countries that import American citrus reject shipments with eggs to avoid what they see as an invasive insect.

Korea, one of the largest importers, fumigates egg-tainted fruit with methyl bromide, but the country plans to discontinue this practice after the upcoming January-April season. California citrus growers are rushing to find new ways to manage the beetle eggs, and the USDA is testing new fumigants. But the beetles are difficult to rear in the lab—a necessary step for the research—and most the work must happen between August and October when the adult beetles are common and easily collected. “At certain times of the year, a high percentage of citrus is exported to Korea and so this will have a severe economic impact on the California citrus industry next year,” says Grafton-Cardwell.

The shutdown’s financial impact on crop insects is not limited to academia. The EPA regulates pesticides and the USDA monitors the import and distribution of certain microorganisms used in biological-based pesticides; the shutdown of both affects the production and sales of pest products. Pam Marrone, the CEO and founder of Marrone Bio Innovations, makes bio-based pesticides for insects including Asian citrus psyllids and brown marmorated stink bugs. Marrone says EPA approval on one new product is delayed by the shutdown, and the import of key ingredients from overseas is stalled.

Even worse: many companies make products outside of the US, and the EPA has stopped issuing the paperwork necessary import these back into the country. Marrone says “pesticides are sitting on ports and not being released into the US.”

In a press release, ESA president Rob Wiedenmann sums the situation up thusly: “The shutdown of government means a shutdown of research, and those effects will last for years. The shutdown may also affect regulations for approving new crop pesticides at the time when growers are ordering next year’s seeds. The effects of those delays or lack of approvals will not be seen until next year’s crop is harvested.”

Let’s hope the shutdown ends soon, before these problems grow worse.