Published October 13, 2013
Two weeks of sliced budgets and suspensions following Congressional gridlock have been a disastrous setback to a variety of American science programs, wasting millions of dollars and months if not years of research.
Researchers who should be preparing for the coming summer season on Antarctica instead spent the week struggling to understand and cope, as the National Science Foundation said it would run of of funding on Monday for the three key bases in Antarctica: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer.
The agency is turning back incoming vessels and moving to withdraw hundreds of researchers, sources at the base told FoxNews.com.
“Science is closed for the season. For the year. There will be no science,” lamented one Antarctic blogger who goes by the name Genevieve (strict rules govern what contractors are allowed to say to the press -- speaking up means risking work next year).
Those researchers find themselves scrambling not just for jobs but for shelter. One makeshift Facebook page with over 1,400 members details the efforts to find roofs for their heads.
“Hi fellow Antarcticans: I've got a queen bed, couch, floor space, air mattress, a balcony with a great view and a wonderful park a block away here in Denver,” reads one typical offer.
Many researchers allow apartment rental leases to lapse and put their possessions in storage, expecting months on the ice. Several hundred such workers are being returned home, where nothing awaits.
“If anyone is up near the woods of Hanover, N.H. ... I have two couches and heaps of floor space,” another reads, alongside potential jobs for the suddenly unemployed -- short order cooks, painters, electricians and more wanted.
The situation on the ice is echoed across the country. Approximately 80 percent of the government is still operating as usual, including Congress itself, but the budget cuts were devastating to science.
Radio telescopes maintained by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia, New Mexico, and Hawaii are being turned off for lack of funds, reported Science magazine blog ScienceInsider. Along with the stations, 385 staff members are being sent home.
“Holy cow, this is really bad,” radio astronomer Mark Reid said. “If they don’t operate the telescopes, it could mean a year’s worth of data becomes useless.”
The National Climatic Data Center, an arm of the National Weather Service in Asheville, N.C., that studies long term climate change, was shut down on the first day.
Overall, the National Science Foundation has furloughed around 2,000 employees and contractors, leaving a skeleton crew of 30, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Meanwhile, science meetings and conferences where researchers can analyze and debate data to better understand things are next to suffer. Alan P. Boss, a member of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of next month’s Kepler astronomy conference, said he worries about whether they'll be able to throw the event.
“The ability of scientists to attend an open scientific meeting about the spectacular results produced by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope is another likely fatality of the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact a federal budget for FY2014,” Boss told FoxNews.com. Other science conferences may face similar fates.
But the most immediate scientific crisis lies in Antarctica, where millions of dollars and in some cases years of research are being thrown out the window.
The icy facilities are maintained by both the U.S. government and through a $2 billion, 2011 contract with Lockheed Martin. Rick Hieb, the vice president at Lockheed Martin under which the Antarctic Support Contract falls, said the company was working to move the bases to “caretaker status.”
“We are focused on executing the necessary actions to transition the program into caretaker status, which will ensure the safety of U.S. property in Antarctica and the personnel who care for it. We remain committed to serving the National Science Foundation and will support the U.S. Antarctic Program as directed,” Hieb told FoxNews.com.
But for the 500 or so researchers presently living at McMurdo, the uncertain prospect of leaving a job and a place they have come to love over these circumstances is maddening, the mechanics of how to leave -- and what to return to -- equally frightening.
“Once we start this process of drawing down to caretaker status we cannot back out of it and restart the season,” wrote Genevieve.
“Mostly we are sad. Frustrated. Angry at our government and ashamed to be Americans.”