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A case for compromise in the US government shutdown

by Willie E. May
January 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 4


This is a guest editorial by Willie E. May, former undersecretary of commerce for standards and technology and director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and current vice president for research and economic development at Morgan State University.

Compromise—it is something we practice as scientists and engineers, as well as in our personal lives. If the ideal solution cannot be achieved, we step back, find a fit-for-purpose solution, and move forward.

As of C&EN deadline for this issue, the US federal government has been partially shut down for 34 days, affecting 9 of the 15 cabinet-level departments that employ more than 800,000 federal workers. Many of those workers are scientists or engineers. The vast majority of employees at NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the US Geological Survey, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service are locked out and not allowed to go to work. Both employees and contractors live under the reasonable expectation that their government will honor the terms and conditions of their employment. Government employees will be paid retroactively after the shutdown ends, but Congress has not provided full assurance that contractors will be paid for their missed time.

The question that resonates now is, “How can we get beyond this impasse and get back to normalcy?” This shutdown certainly has adverse effects on individuals and families. But the ramifications of this, the longest government shutdown in US history, has broader consequences and impacts. The truth, from my perspective, is that our country is the biggest loser here. I speak from the perspective of an active member of the chemical science and technology community for nearly half a century, with the bulk of that time in the federal government.

This shutdown is not good for our country in any way, but in particular, it is adversely impacting the following:

The morale of the finest scientific workforce on this planet. Government scientists are working on critically important problems, including cures for diseases, the safety of our food supply, cybersecurity, and next-generation quantum computers. The current lapse in funding has cut scientists off from their labs and the work that they have devoted their lives to, which could cause many of our best and brightest to move on to different positions. That would be a severe loss for our country.

This shutdown is not good for our country.

Research in the world’s best collection of universities. A marked reduction in grant processing and funding drawdowns at agencies such as the National Science Foundation have stalled progress in all scientific fields.

Critical NASA space missions. Delays in work at NASA affect our knowledge of other planets, the stars, and beyond.

US industrial productivity and innovation. For example, work has been brought to a halt at my former agency, NIST, including the world-renowned labs where ­cutting-edge research has yielded five Nobel Prizes and many other awards. In addition to lacking the results of NIST’s intramural research, US industry does not have access to NIST’s calibration services for precision instruments, 1,200 cataloged standard reference materials, reference data sets that get more than 225,000 downloads per year, and unique user facilities that are in demand 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


The US government employs the best collection of scientists and engineers in the world. Their work is critical to the US’s industrial productivity and economic and national security, as well as quality of life in the US. Just as compromise is part of the scientific lexicon and practice in our daily lives, let’s encourage US leaders to find a reasonable compromise. Federal government workers—especially government scientists and engineers—need to get back to doing what they do best: supporting US innovation, industrial productivity, and improvements in quality of life in the US and throughout the world.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS or C&EN.


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