In the Documents: How the 2018-2019 Government Shutdown Affected Federal Science Agencies

Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the end of the longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history, which cost the government $2.6 billion alone in back pay for federal employees — many of whom were involuntarily furloughed and prevented from doing work. Following the end of that shutdown, American Oversight filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to uncover how federal agencies were affected, and we have obtained documents that show the funding lapse’s impact on several of the country’s main science agencies.

Records from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offer a glimpse of some of the damage inflicted by the 35-day shutdown, ranging from canceled trips to major conferences to employee departures. (The Department of Transportation said it had no records responsive to our requests, though it did note in its cover letter that there was more than $55,000 in political appointee travel expenses during the time of the shutdown.)

To refresh your memory about what led to the longest-ever partial government shutdown in U.S. history: The funding lapse began on Dec. 22, 2018, when President Donald Trump threatened to veto any spending bill that did not include his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. On Jan. 25, 2019, Trump agreed to a stopgap bill to reopen the government, three weeks later declaring a national emergency on the border to circumvent Congress.

NASA

Among the NASA documents obtained by American Oversight is an 8-page “Shutdown Impacts Summary” dated Feb. 8, 2019. The report detailed how the disruption of operations affected schedules, projects and personnel across the agency. One major impact was the exodus of some highly skilled employees. “While overall human capital impacts to date appear to have been minor across the civil servant and support contractor workforce in most locations,” the report said, “the losses that did occur were in areas with specialized skills that are in high demand.”

NASA furloughed 95 percent of its workforce during the shutdown, which resulted in employee departures. “Some employees and contractors left NASA in part due to lack of certainty regarding length of shutdown,” the report said. “The shutdown also resulted in lost training/continuing education/costs/classes and delayed retirement processing.”

Multiple projects outlined in the impacts summary experienced significant delays — a New Zealand scientific balloon campaign was delayed by a year; seven weeks of science flights “were lost”; and spring interns “lost several weeks of valuable work experience.” Research solicitations were also postponed, which “introduced uncertainty into this planning and will likely lead to some researchers adjusting research areas and perhaps even result in reduced hiring.” 

Because the funding lapsed for multiple contracts, the report noted, many contractors working on “mission critical and safety operations” continued to work “at risk” while others stopped working. And halted facilities maintenance and routine inspections led to an estimated $1 million in damages. The NASA impacts summary also estimated late penalties on vendor payments to be more than $225,000. A Senate report released last fall found that the NASA shutdown cost taxpayers more than $244 million and resulted in 1,541 lost years of workers’ collective productivity.

USGS

The Senate report also noted that “a majority of USGS activities were suspended, including scientific research projects,” including the delay of efforts to combat invasive species in the Great Lakes. A “USGS Furlough Report” obtained by American Oversight in response to our FOIA request lists the shutdown’s negative effects on hiring and retaining employees as well as project delays and lost work. The report also lists important meetings and conferences that were missed.

Interestingly, the USGS documents also contain an email — sent after American Oversight submitted our FOIA requests — with the subject line “One more item for FOIA.” The email, from a research scientist, said, “I can’t find a record of it in an email, but I was just reminded of another impact of the shutdown.” The scientist then explained how a project “‘lost’ several weeks worth of work … on top of the 5-week delay in kicking off additional work.”

NOAA

NOAA also experienced disruptions to its research, which, as noted in the Senate report, affected private businesses that rely on government weather data. The documents we obtained included a memo to NOAA employees informing them that all official travel to the annual American Meteorological Society conference was canceled because of the lapse in appropriations. The memo said that NOAA would request to be reimbursed for the registration costs, but not the $75 processing fee, and instructs employees who were planning to be speakers at the conference that they “may not attend in their personal capacity and continue to be speakers.”

The original NOAA approval for the AMS meeting, which confirmed that the event was “mission critical,” describes it as “the largest and most effective event to share and exchange science, and more than that, science that is focused on improving services to society. The presentations and ensuing discussions … directly address NOAA’s strategic objective of building a Weather-Ready Nation.” Given the meeting’s importance, American Oversight also asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for documents related to officials’ ability to attend the event, but the agency said it had no such records.

Email correspondence contained in the records reveal that NOAA’s cancellation was disappointing for other attendees, including those from international organizations. The director-general of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts wrote to NOAA official Mary Ann Kutny, “It is obviously very unfortunate as NOAA is such a major player in meteorology and will be thoroughly missed at AMS. We were really looking forward to meeting some of your colleagues next week.”

A representative from the Japanese Meteorological Agency also expressed their disappointment at the cancellation. Additionally, NOAA’s lack of participation led to eight delegates from the China Meteorological Administration cancelling their trip to the AMS conference. Another email shows Kutny expressing her regret to Taiwan’s National Space Organization (NSPO). “I recognize that significant planning and expense have been undertaken for this meeting and I sincerely regret any inconvenience this causes NSPO.”

Another series of communications centers on a booth in the AMS exhibit hall that had already been shipped, with prepaid labor arranged for its setup. An AMS representative emailed NOAA official Mary Erickson saying that they were “sorry that things had to go in this direction” and asking for instructions about what to do with the soon-to-be unattended booth.

In a separate discussion, NOAA official Scott Smullen outlined the options. “Regardless, we have spent $70,000 already,” Smullen wrote. “So the question is, what kind of signal do we want to send with the booth? Put it up and more directly show the impact of a shutdown, or ship it back and leave the … empty footprint on the carpet with no NOAA branding. … Either way, some non-NOAA AMS participants will take pics of the booth area and post to their social media channels saying it’s shame … NOAA is not there.”

The emails show that later, NOAA was able to work with the vendor to recover some of the cost by not setting up the exhibit. So in the end, there was just the “empty footprint.”

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