This should be a good month for planetary science.
We started the new year with NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft confirming its encounter with the most distant object ever explored in the solar system — Ultima Thule. The next day, China’s Chang’e 4 probe landed on the far side of the Moon.
But, unlike the United States, China didn’t have to scramble to make sure that happened.
Unless something miraculous has occurred, when this column is published, we will be entering the 31st day of the partial federal government shutdown, an event that leaves agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, National Park Service and, yes, NASA, unfunded. But on Jan.1, NASA had no choice. The flyby of Ultima Thule was a once-in-forever event, so they called in their scientists and got the job done, despite bickering politicians in Washington.
You only get one shot at some scientific observations. Months, years and sometimes decades go into their planning. When the time comes, scientists can’t let something like a shuttered government stand in their way.
In the summer of 2003, I was looking forward to my first job at the United States Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. I was going to work with a team analyzing new data from the Mars Global Surveyor. I was excited to be the first to look at new images of the red planet.
Bags packed and car loaded, I learned President George W. Bush had instituted a government-wide hiring freeze. Even though my project was still going on as planned, my advisor couldn’t process my paperwork.
I was happy to have been informed before I made the 10-hour drive.
My advisor eventually managed to find a workaround — after all, it wasn’t like the government was shut down — and hired me as a private contractor for the maximum 10-week window. That gave me time to find another position at a private institution, which, though still receiving NASA funding, was not subject to the hiring freeze.
I count myself lucky. It was just a minor hiccup in my career.
Two years later, NASA was forced by legislative fiat to kill the funding for my area of research. Lucky for me, I had recently been hired in the Weber State University physics department. Once again, despite a minor bump due to politics in Washington, I managed to land on my feet.
I have no doubt that’s what my fellow scientists at NASA will do. If the shutdown goes on much longer, those highly skilled scientists could find other employment. They will hate leaving projects they’ve worked on for decades, but if they need to put food on the table, I have no doubt, they’ll figure out how to make things work.
And that will be our loss.
A lot of science in this country is funded directly by the federal government in the form of civil servants working in national laboratories, or indirectly in the form of grants to universities and research labs. That’s because most fundamental research won’t be profitable, so businesses don’t invest in it. Many of the extremely profitable things that make up the foundation of our free-market economy — think of stuff like the World Wide Web, GPS technology, pharmaceuticals, etc. — are based on research and technologies that would never have gotten off the ground without government-sponsored research.
That’s what makes this shutdown so harmful to science. There is the immediate effect, that scientists are not making progress on their projects. There are follow on effects, such as universities that aren’t sure when, or if, their programs will be funded. There are more lasting effects, like the gaps in data when the shutdown keeps airborne instruments grounded and oceanographic vessels stuck in their harbors, or the scientists who will miss their first field season in decades, losing important observations that simply can’t be replicated.
But perhaps more importantly, there is the uncertainty added to the already chaotic lives of young scientists.
In addition to the turmoil this shutdown is causing my friends and neighbors who work for government agencies in Ogden, I’m worried about the future of science in this country. With unemployment as tight as it is, it won’t be long before extremely well-trained scientists decide to move into other careers outside of government. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but that’s a lot of talented people no longer working on projects we’ve come to love — and need.
They may end up working for businesses that make great mobile devices; however, very few of those firms will send probes into the outermost regions of space to allow us to explore our solar system.