It’s Day 2 of the U.S. government shutdown. While the media blares about congressional politics and occasionally offers a run-down of what the shutdown may or may not mean for the average Joe, the impacts of the shutdown on science are not generally noted. Notice that I said ‘science’ and not ‘U.S. science’ because this shutdown affects scientists around the globe.
For starters, all the federal grant-making agencies are shut. This means no processing of grants, no review of proposals. Everything grinds to a halt. At best, it causes delays. But at worst, it means important science that depends on continuity gets interrupted, forcing some scientists to start their experiments over from scratch; for expensive experiments, it could mean a death knell. Other research that depends on getting funding before a field season may be delayed a year even if the government is shut down for only a few days.
Much of U.S. science is actually done by government employees. One agency, the United States Geological Survey, employs (oh, I can’t look up the number; the website is shut down; let’s just say “many thousands of”) scientists who work on topics like climate, ecosystems, earthquakes, and water quality. While some of these employees — like those who monitor for earthquakes, for example — will keep working as “essential” employees, most are furloughed. They get sent home with no pay and are forbidden by law to do any science. Forbidden. It’s a felony to work when furloughed. This hits home for me, as my husband is a post-doctoral geologist with the the U.S. Geological Survey and we are going without three-quarters of our household income for the length of the shutdown.
In addition to the direct impacts of the shutdown on government funding agencies and on government scientists, many more scientists are indirectly affected by issues of access. I am a fellow at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., but I am employed by the University of Minnesota. The Smithsonian, being a quasi-governmental organization, is shut down. Most of the Smithsonian’s scientists are furloughed. (The folks in the entomology department, where I spend my time, are many of the ones that describe new species of insects previously unknown to science. No new species for a while, everyone. Sorry.) And on top of that, even people who aren’t employees of the Smithsonian (like me) cannot do their work, because they can’t get into the building. I know of visitors from other countries who came to visit the Museum for a few weeks to do research. But they can’t get in.
There are many, many scientists all over the world who collaborate with U.S. government scientists, who depend on U.S. government funding, and who use U.S. federal facilities. All these people are feeling the negative effects of the shutdown and aren’t able to get their science done.
Sequestration, Science, and Snapshot Serengeti
Even if you live outside the U.S., it’s been hard to miss the arrival of the dreaded sequester. However, the impact of sequestration on science research doesn’t get a lot of attention in the general din. The U.S. government funds almost all of the nation’s basic science research, which means science research that doesn’t have an immediate application like creating a new medicine or figuring out how to grow crops to withstand drought.
Much of ecology research is basic. In Snapshot Serengeti, we’re interested in learning how a large assemblage of animals coexist and use the landscape. The results will not have an immediate impact on how the Serengeti is managed, but we hope it will help inform conservation management decisions down the line.
Most of the nation’s basic research – and much applied research – is being cut by approximately 8%. Now, science funding hasn’t been doing all that well over the past couple decades anyway. And now things are getting worse. Snapshot Serengeti and its parent organization, the Lion Research Center, are mainly funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), which announced recently that it will award 1,000 fewer grants this year than anticipated.
You may remember that in January, we were working hard on a grant proposal to keep our cameras rolling past the end of 2012. The way the process works is that each proposal gets evaluated on whether it is good, well-planned, and worthwhile science and either gets recommended for funding or rejected. To give you an idea, in our division of the NSF, 16% of proposals got recommended for funding last year.
But it doesn’t end there. Each year the NSF gets many more good, well-planned, and worthwhile proposals than it can fund. So it ranks them. And then it starts funding them, starting at the top and moving down the list, until it runs out of money. Of the recommended proposals, NSF expected to be able to fund just the top 22% of them this year.
And with sequestration, that pot of available money just got even smaller.
What that means for our proposal isn’t clear yet. If the sequester sticks, then we will be competing for a smaller pot of next year’s NSF money. And even if it doesn’t, we’ll be in tighter competition with all those really good proposals from this year that just missed out on getting funded. In either case, the sequester is bad news for Snapshot Serengeti.
Maybe you’ve seen fire in some of the images you’ve classified and thought “oh no!”
Fire is actually an important component of savanna ecosystems. Fire kills young trees and seedlings, reducing the number of big adult trees that grow over time. Since trees compete with grasses for light and soil moisture, fire actually helps the grasses and keeps the savannas open.
Dr. Rico Holdo, a professor at the University of Missouri, and his colleagues modeled and wrote about the interactions of fire, rain, grasses, trees, and the various animals in the Serengeti. The interactions get complicated quickly, but I’ll try to give you a run-down of how they see fire acting in this ecosystem.
First, as I’ve mentioned, fire suppresses trees and encourages grasses. If you have both fire and rain, but no animals, then something interesting happens: the rain encourages the trees, but it encourages the grasses, too. As the grasses get taller, there is more fuel for fire, and the fires become more widespread and more damaging. These fiercer fires really hurt the trees – in fact, the damage from fires (because of more rain) is more important than the extra boost the trees get directly from the rain. So more rain actually means fewer trees.
With me so far? We’re now going to throw animals into the mix – well, at least some of the animals. Let’s talk about the grazers. The grazers eat the grass, and this reduces the fuel available to fire. If you have a lot of grazers, like we do in the Serengeti, the grass height is reduced a lot. That means fewer fires and that rain once again helps the trees. Further, many of the grazers are migratory and move around the landscape a lot. They don’t eat the savanna grasses in a neat, tidy, organized way. Instead, they create a patchy mosaic of grass heights, and with those different grass heights come different susceptibility of patches of grass to burn.
With rain and fire and grazers, we now have a landscape of grasses of different lengths, patchy fires, and some areas dense with trees and some areas with fewer trees. All that variation means more diversity – more diversity of the grasses, plants, and trees, and more diversity of the animals that rely on them.
All that diversity due, in part, to fire.
You can read the scientific paper by Dr. Holdo and his colleagues here:
Holdo, Ricardo M., Robert D. Holt, and John M. Fryxell. “Grazers, browsers, and fire influence the extent and spatial pattern of tree cover in the Serengeti.” Ecological Applications 19.1 (2009): 95-109.