End of shutdown brings research rebound but data delays lingered

by Anna Bisaro
Oct 24, 2013

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Anna Bisaro/MEDILL

Brenda Hall, left, worried about the future of her glacier research in Antarctica during the government shutdown. 

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The government shutdown had global consequences for reseach.

Before the government reopened last week, the shutdown weighed heavily on scientists gathered in southern Wisconsin for the Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference earlier this month.  Now back at their labs, scientists say the temperary shutdown won't harm their long-term projects.

But short-term research delays lingered for some. 

Glaciologist Brenda Hall of the University of Maine has traveled to Antarctica every year for the last 24 years. Hall’s research in there analyzes how the melting ice sheets contribute to rising sea levels.

Despite the temporary government shutdown this month, she is still scheduled to go with students to the continent during the last week in November, a trip she feared she would have to cancel if the shutdown lingered.

“It’s just a mess,” Hall said during the conference, held in the midst of the shutdown. “It’s just a mess.” 

To her relief, her trip will go on as planned. 

A lost research season can ripple through the research, leaving gaps in both data and funding, scientists said.

Hall teaches glaciology and ice age studies and said many of her students’ research has been placed on hold because of the shutdown. If the current research project in Antarctica is postponed this year and the fieldwork pushed to next year, the two-year project could run out of funding, she said.

The field season in Antarctica runs from November to February. Unfortunately, due to teaching schedules and coordinating with other scientists, she and her students cannot go there just any time during that period if she loses her November window of opportunity.

Many professors, students and researchers alike delayed activities such as fieldwork and applications for more funding from the National Science Foundation after the 16-day government shutdown took effect Oct. 1. Others, who already completed their fieldwork projects, worried about data waiting to be processed at places such as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

Jennifer Lennon, a master’s student at the University of Maine and an advisee of Hall's, does not work in Antarctica, but said her research has been delayed by the shutdown, though not for long. She had a host of beryllium-10 samples waiting to be assessed at Lawrence Livermore. Beryllium-10, like carbon-14, provides a dating tool. The finalization of her master’s thesis depends on that data.

Toby Koffman, a PhD student at the University of Maine, was also waiting for data from Lawrence Livermore. He canceled a trip to the California lab to collect data samples he needed to finish her dissertation, which he plans to defend in the spring. Koffman conducts research on glaciation in New Zealand.

“It’s an important facility, far beyond the scope of my work,” Koffman said. 

Koffman’s dissertation is back on schedule, he said. The total cost for him, other than the worry that comes with delay, was $200 for a change of flight fee.

Richard Alley, climate scientist and professor at Penn State University, emceed the conference. He said the shutdown made teaching very difficult because government websites, abundant with data and maps, were unavailable to his students who are not heading out on field excursions. Overall, he said, the shutdown hurts students, along with everyone else.

“The thirst for knowledge is being blocked because their [the government] house is not in order.”