As the partial federal government shutdown stretched into a second week, nearly all of the R&D programs that had avoided immediate disruptions were feeling the pain.
A divided Congress remained in a partisan standoff over passing a short-term budget measure that would reopen the government. Many federal R&D programs and activities already have been or soon will be shuttered—including national laboratories such as Oak Ridge and Los Alamos—unless Congress acts.
The stalemate leaves many observers worried not only about the shutdown but also about the difficulty of eventually starting again. “Once you shut down a program, it is difficult to restart it,” says Glenn S. Ruskin, spokesman for the American Chemical Society, adding that the cost of restarting is also higher than the cost of shutting down. “It is just not helpful to the scientific enterprise to have funding that is unpredictable and unsustainable.”
Coming closures if a budget is not passed include the Department of Energy’s shuttering of most of its 10 national laboratories by Oct. 18, with employee furloughs starting by Oct. 21. Only operations necessary to “maintain minimal safety” will continue, DOE says.
The National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program also announced cancellation of the October-to-February field research season if the budget impasse is not resolved. All nonessential personnel at its three research stations there will be sent home. Even if funds are restored, NSF warns that some activities will not resume for this season.
On the regulatory front, the Environmental Protection Agency will be unable to review paperwork on new chemicals. By law, companies must submit Premanufacture Notices to the agency before they can commercialize a novel substance.
“In the short term, this should not create too many problems,” says Daniel Newton, senior manager of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, a trade association for the specialty chemical industry. If the shutdown continues, however, delays in getting to market are likely to hurt companies, he says.
EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs is already closed. The office typically processes about 300 applications for new pesticides or new uses per month. Ray McAllister, senior director of regulatory policy at CropLife America, a trade group, says that “a delay may result in a grower missing availability of new products or additional product uses throughout the next growing season and limit availability of effective crop protection.”
Funding for the Department of Homeland Security’s program for enhancing security at high-risk U.S. chemical facilities has also expired. Employees associated with the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program have been furloughed. Chemical manufacturers say they are concerned about the future of the program, which requires companies to develop comprehensive security plans that meet standards established by DHS.
The Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board has been effectively shut down. All but three CSB employees have been furloughed. The 40-person CSB is charged with investigating the root cause of chemical-related accidents and had some 15 investigations in various stages of completion when government spending was halted.
“If a large incident were to occur,” Daniel M. Horowitz, CSB managing director, says, “we would confer with the Office of Management & Budget about the potential recall of investigators from furlough. However, that would be a difficult prospect at best, since the entire administrative side of our house is closed.”
As C&EN went to press, the shutdown, which began on Oct. 1, appeared to be on a collision course with another potential fiscal calamity, the debt ceiling. On Oct. 17, the country will have used all of its credit and will be unable to borrow money to pay its bills, the Treasury Department says. Several Republican lawmakers have said that the debt ceiling fight is exaggerated and won’t hurt the economy, but Democrats and most economic experts disagree.