The shutdown of the U.S. government is getting ample news coverage, but I wanted to jot down a few notes on what this means for science communication.
So-called “nonessential” federal personnel are not working. This applies to, among others, many (if not most) employees at the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exceptions are those who, as described in this article from Science Careers, are involved in animal care, patient care or national defense.
For science writers, this means that most federal researchers cannot be reached. And, even if they can be reached, they won’t be able to discuss their research or comment as third parties on the work of other scientists. This is because researchers who are not working are not allowed to check their work email or engage in activities that are related in any way to their work.
Sorry, reporters. While science will continue to move forward, papers will be published, etc., the pool of people you can talk to about that work just shrunk.
(Side note: if I were an interest group interested in attacking the findings of federal research, now is when I would do it. There are very few government researchers or media relations staff to respond to the attacks. Something to keep an eye on.)
But the science communication impact extends to the public as well. Anyone who goes to the NIH home page this morning will find that it is flagged with a large header that reads, in part: “Due to the lapse in government funding, the information on this web site may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the web site may not be processed, and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations are enacted.” Similar messages can be found atop the home pages for the CDC and PubMed (the NASA site appears to be shut down completely).
If nothing else, telling people that health-related information may be out of date is likely to make readers uncertain about the veracity of anything they read there (regardless of how established that information may be). That’s troubling.
Outreach activities are also eliminated. For example, NASA sent out a tweet early Oct. 1 saying “Due to the gov’t shutdown, all public NASA activities/events are cancelled or postponed until further notice. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
We’ll also be missing out on science news from federal agencies, such as NSF’s daily Science360 updates (the site is currently shuttered).
These are first-blush reflections on the impact of the shutdown on scicomm efforts. I’m sure I’m missing more. Please share your insights about other ways the shutdown is affecting science communication in the comments.
For example, here’s one question I have: if federal researchers were in the midst of proofing articles they had authored for journals, what happens? What about federal researchers who are in the midst of reviewing articles submitted by others? Presumably, the researchers can’t even use their work email accounts (assuming those are the accounts they use to correspond with journals). Theoretically, these activities could be barred, but I don’t know if they are. If the shutdown drags on for weeks, what impact will this have on journals?
Update, 7:45 a.m. (EST), Oct. 2: It looks like I’m not the only one who is unclear on the impact of the shutdown on academic journals. Check out this blog post on the possible effects of the shutdown on PLOS ONE. It looks like they’re aware of a possible impact, but are just as unsure about how exactly that will play out.
PS: I know that the shutdown is also affecting science in many other ways. (Here’s a post from ScienceInsider and another post from Science Careers on just a few of those impacts.) But I’m focusing on science communication, because that is what this blog is all about.