Science, Research, and Public Safety

Our Shutdown Stories series, which began as a series of public Facebook posts, is focused on providing factual, evidenced based information about the effects of shutting down particular Federal Government agencies. 

Howdy, Howdy, Howdy 

 Welcome back, dear reader, to what I am absolutely sure will be the longest edition of Shutdown Stories I have written and published so far.  In this addition we are going to talk multiple agencies, multiple stakeholders, multiple issues and examine the patterns and ripples those have out to each other, and to our economy and society as a whole. So saddle up pardners (give me a break it’s day 18 of this mess and I need a little punny in my life) and let’s hit the dusty trail of information. As a reminder, this writing is not the typical writing you will find on the TWRG insights page, the purpose of this writing is to give the average citizen a primer in the real-life effects of this Government Shutdown. We are on a mission to educate. 

Herd ’em Up Move ‘Em Out 

So, today I want to take more of an impact focused approach to talking through the shutdown. Today, we focus on public safety and accountability and the effect of the shutdown on our government’s ability to provide those two things, which I think we can all agree are of paramount importance. 

The Science Keeps us safe, Y’all 

Public Safety is more than law enforcement, in fact, most law enforcement officers that I have met will be the first to espouse about “an ounce of prevention” being the best way to keep yourself, your family, and society as a whole safe.  The Federal Government has several constitutional and legal mandates to uphold public safety and this shutdown is supposedly all about that. Let’s put aside immigration for a bit and talk about some of the quieter things the government does to fulfill this mandate everyday, that aren’t currently funded – starting with research. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 

 Hopefully, you have heard of NOAA. I say hopefully because they are small and I recognize that I live in a government focused bubble. For those of you not imminently familiar with NOAA, here is a quick primer. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which rolls up under the currently unfunded Department of Commerce, has it’s roots as the United States Cost and Geodetic Survey in 1807. The most direct predecessor agency however, is the Environmental Sciences Service Administration (which absorbed the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, The Weather Bureau, and the Uniformed Corps in 1965).  

NOAA’s mission is simply stated “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources” (And before you ask, yes, they weren’t having the easiest go of it before the shutdown either).   NOAA currently boasts a staff of 12,000 worldwide, with 6,773 of those being scientists and engineers. This staff works in nine focus areas: 

  • Weather
  • Climate 
  • Oceans and Coasts 
  • Fisheries 
  • Satellites 
  • Research 
  • Marine and Aviation 
  • Charting 
  • Sanctuaries 

Fun fact, with just $3 per person (per US Citizen) per year,  NOAA’s National Weather Service provides each person in the US with timely and accurate basic weather, water, and climate forecasts – as well as lifesaving watches and warnings when severe weather strikes. I’d say that alone is pretty important to the public saftey, wouldn’t you? That’s just a tiny scratch on the surface though. 

Let’s talk about what NOAA can and can’t do during the shutdown. The Department of Commerce shutdown information site, The following services will be maintained in accordance with the Antideficiency Act

  • Weather, water, and climate observing, prediction, forecast, warning and support 
  • Water Level Data for ships entering US Ports

So what’s missing, well that’s sort of murky as the commerce site lists only 

  •  Most research activities at NIST and NOAA (excluding real-time regular models on research computers used for hurricane and FAA flight planning) 
  • Assistance and support to recipients of grant funding 

Yeah, I know we will get to NIST, NIST is it’s own can of worms. But, let’s explore what it means to shut down all but the most urgent, basic, real-time weather reporting. They key takeaway: It’s causing a big gap in data. Data isn’t being collected, let alone processed on many of NOAA’s research initiatives. Scientists have been forced out of the field, out of the lab, and the data simply isn’t being collected. I generally prefer my science to be evidence-based, which requires the regular and systematic collection and analysis of data. A shutdown sized gap in data can cripple a research initiative and stop an experiment in it’s tracks. Some returning scientists post shutdown will be faced with the difficult choice of starting over, or using a data set that isn’t what it should be, and when we are talking about the kind of science NOAA is doing, we are talking about the prediction of weather events and sea-level change, which are pressing issues to the public saftey (please ask anyone who lived through a hurricane this year or generally lives in a city that is “sinking”). 

This important research saves lives, and it’s not being done right now.  I will close out the NOAA section with this picture (h/t WaPo) because it really says more than I can about Feds being asked to work without pay, than I can no matter how many words I type.  

The Food and Drug Administration 

Ahhhh the FDA, fun fact the first services contract I ever won was a tiny little contract over at FDA HQ but I digress. I am assuming that most Americans have heard of the FDA, but lets take a quick dive into who they are and what they do.  The image below is a little chilling so brace yourself (for reference I snipped this when trying to screen shot their shutdown message, but it looks like something needs to be fixed and without funding it won’t be).  

The currently unfunded FDA which traces it’s origins back to the Agricultural Division in the Patent Office in 1848 and came into its modern iteration with the passage of the 1906 Pure Foods and Drugs Act rolls up under the Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for: 

  • Protecting the public health by assuring that foods (except for meat from livestock, poultry, and some egg products which are regulated by the USDA)are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled; ensuring that human and veterinary drugs, and vaccines and other biological products are safe and effective 
  • Protecting the public from electronic product radiation 
  • Assuring cosmetics and dietary supplements are safe and properly labeled 
  • Regulating tobacco products 
  • Advancing the public health by helping to speed product innovations

These responsibilities extend to all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, Guam, The USVI, American Samoa, and other US Territories and possessions; and I think we can all agree that this is pretty important stuff. To put it simply, the FDA makes sure that most of the stuff we put in our bodies is safe (unless the USDA is already doing it).  The FDA’s size usually surprises people with an estimated 17,468 full-time equivalent (FTE) working across their 11 task areas, as shown in the figure below (h/t FDA).   

So with that important mission in mind, let’s talk about what’s not getting done or is in danger of not getting done over at the FDA. 

 While the FDA came out of the Shutdown gates stating that it can still maintain essential public health related operations, there are a couple of challenges to this that have popped up, the key challenge being that the FDA (which is partially fee-funded) does not have the legal authority to accept user fees in FY2019, until appropriations or a continuing resolution for the FDA is enacted. Basically, while the FDA could use the fees it collects to keep essential services funded and moving – they haven’t been able to collect any fees. Today, that strain started to show, reported today that with about 41% of FDA workers off the job, even with the carryover user fees for funding the FDA is facing some challenges. “With the shutdown, surveillance is not effective. They are doing the bare minimum to get by. It’s terrifying. What if there’s an outbreak? What would the agency do if something happened and they don’t have the staff to handle it” asks Geneve Parks, a chemist who tests pharmaceuticals at an FDA lab in Detroit.

While her concerns sound catastrophic, when you consider the mission, you can see how she got there. In fact her concerns are, perhaps more calmly, echoed by FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb who says “There is no question that this has an impact, and it is not business as usual, there is a concerted effort to stand up critical functions and to focus on our consumer protection mission, in many cases relying on exempted employees not being paid. Wherever we can, we look at the saftey of the mission first and foremost, but you know what will happen is that more of the routine work and more of the day-to-day review work will slow down. A lot of it has slowed down already.” He goes on to address the issue of unpaid workers “The most challenging part of this is the human capital side of this, we are asking a lot of people to do work that will miss a paycheck. We know people will be in difficult circumstances, and we are asking them to do hard things.” It warms my heart to see acknowledgement of that fact, but it probably doesn’t pay the daycare costs of people being required to work without pay (a topic for a different post).

I think this is a good place to wrap up the FDA with a quick TL;DR: As carryover fee-funding runs out the FDA will face tough choices to continue their mission to protect us. 

Bureau of ocean Energy Management 

5.7 million points to Gryffindor if you already know who BOEM is. Seriously, it’s one of those agencies no one really knows about, but that does important work. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) which rolls up under the currently unfunded Department of the Interior (yes, I know the oceans are on the outside, I KNOW) has a mission that they state on their website as: “The mission of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is to manage development of U.S. Outer Continental Shelf energy and mineral resources in an environmentally and economically responsible way.” So, raise your hand if you remember the Deep Water Horizon disasster and it’s devistating effect on the gulf of Mexico. Yeah, so here’s what BOEM does

  • Development of the Five Year Oter Continental Shelf Oil and Nautural Gas Leasing program, which oversees assessments of the oil, gas and other mineral resource potential of the OCS, inventories oil and gas reserves, develops production projections, conducts economic evaluations to ensure fair market value is received by U.S. taxpayers for OCS leases, and prepares official maps and GIS data for the OCS.
  • BOEM conducts Oil and Gas Lease Sales, and negotiates Sand and Gravel agreements.
    Shore protection, beach nourishment, and coastal habitat restoration projects are the primary uses of sand and gravel.
  • The BOEM Office of Renewable Energy Programs oversees orderly, safe, and environmentally responsible renewable energy development activities on the OCS. The
    program grants leases, easements, and rights of way for offshore renewable energy. BOEM works directly with federal, state, local and tribal governments through 14 renewable energy task forces. These valuable stakeholder groups help identify wind energy areas and issues related to upcoming offshore renewable energy projects.
  • BOEM’s Office of Environmental Programs prepares and oversees environmental reviews, including National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses for offshore energy and mineral development. In addition, BOEM develops, funds, and manages rigorous scientific research to inform policy decisions regarding the development of energy and mineral resources on the OCS.
  • BOEM has three regional offices: in New Orleans, La.; Camarillo, Calif.; and Anchorage,
    Alaska. The regional offices manage oil and gas resource evaluations, environmental studies and assessments, leasing activities — including the review of exploration plans and development plans — fair market value determinations, and geological and geophysical permitting.

So, with that said. There isn’t a whole lot of information about the impacts of the Shutdown on BOEM activities in the media, because by all accounts I can find. They’ve stopped. Why don’t we all just sit with that for a moment. 

The Food SAFETY and Inspection Service 

What’s FSIS up to you ask? Well, don’t ask Karen, she’s non-excepted, she can’t answer you until they are funded. Lucky for you you have me so, let’s talk about FSIS.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) rolls up to the currently unfunded USDA. Their official mission: “Protecting the public’s health by ensuring the saftey of meat, poultry, and processed egg products.” pretty simple, they also have a vision statement I love that states their vision as “Everyone’s food is safe” which sounds either comforting or ominous depending on the tone of voice or status of appropriations.  FSIS operates labs  all over the country and inspections of more than 6,200 meat and poultry facilities where scientists and inspectors test the literal food we put in our literal taxpaying mouths. It’s really just that simple, there is no need for me to fancy it up further than that. They keep us from eating meat, poultry, and eggs that could make us really sick. 

Food Safety News reports that while the inspections are still taking place, that the inspectors and scientists are (say it with me) not getting paid. Here’s the thing when you don’t pay people – they can’t pay their bills. Eventually that leads to people not being able to keep showing up to provide you with free labor, they have rent and healthcare bills and daycare to pay for. Can you imagine having to “take your kids to work” to help inspect a meat processing facility, I can think of at least three federal laws that violates. As the shutdown continues and workers can no longer afford to work for free, state and local agencies will have to either shoulder the burden or allow their citizens to take a big risk; because FSIS can’t hire or train new inspectors either. Fun Times. 

Someone please think of the scientists 

This new longer form has given me lots of room to run around this issue, and if you have any feedback please feel free to drop me a note or comment. What’s important to takeaway from this is that this is merely four agencies. I stopped after four so as not to go full novel on you, but there are so many more science and research agencies and initiatives impacted by the shutdown that effect the public safety.  If this makes you angry good! Please call your Senators and Reps and encourage them to find a way to fund these agencies individually through appropriations or CR. As always, please (please) feel free to share my mission is to educate people on the business of government and the effect on the citizenry of shutting that down.