Science (or the lack thereof) in the Midst of a Government Shutdown

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

In what is the longest government shutdown in the history of the United States, many people are impacted. Speaking from a scientist’s point of view, I acknowledge the scientific community is one of many groups that is being majorly obstructed. Here at the GEMM Laboratory, all of us are feeling the frustrations of the federal government grinding to a halt in different ways. Although our research spans great distances—from Dawn’s work on New Zealand blue whales that utilizes environmental data managed by our federal government, to new projects that cannot get federal permit approvals to state data collection, to many of Leigh’s projects on the Oregon coast of the USA that are funded and collaborate with federal agencies—we all recognize that our science is affected by the shutdown. My research on common bottlenose dolphins is no exception; my academic funding is through the US Department of Defense, my collaborators are NOAA employees who contribute NOAA data; I use publicly-available data for additional variables that are government-maintained; and I am part of a federally-funded public university. Ironically, my previous blog post about the intersection of science and politics seems to have become even more relevant in the past few weeks.

Many graduate students like me are feeling the crunch as federal agencies close their doors and operations. Most people have seen the headlines that allude to such funding-related issues. However, it’s important to understand what the funding in question is actually doing. Whether we see it or not, the daily operations of the United States Federal government helps science progress on a multitude of levels.

Federal research in the United States is critical. Most governmental branches support research with the most well-known agencies for doing so being the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. There are 137 executive agencies in the USA (cei.org). On a finer scale, NSF alone receives approximately 40,000 scientific proposals each year (nsf.gov).

If I play a word association game and I am given the word “science”, my response would be “data”. Data—even absence data—informs science. The largest aggregate of metadata with open resources lives in the centralized website, data.gov, which is maintained by the federal government and is no longer accessible and directs you to this message:Here are a few more examples of science that has stopped in its track from lesser-known research entities operated by the federal government:

Currently, the National Weather Service (NWS) is unable to maintain or improve its advanced weather models. Therefore, in addition to those of us who include weather or climate aspects into our research, forecasters are having less and less information on which to base their weather predictions. Prior to the shutdown, scientists were changing the data format of the Global Forecast System (GFS)—the most advanced mathematical, computer-based weather modeling prediction system in the USA. Unfortunately, the GFS currently does not recognize much of the input data it is receiving. A model is only as good as its input data (as I am sure Dawn can tell you), and currently that means the GFS is very limited. Many NWS models are upgraded January-June to prepare for storm season later in the year. Therefore, there are long-term ramifications for the lack of weather research advancement in terms of global health and safety. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/01/07/national-weather-service-is-open-your-forecast-is-worse-because-shutdown/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.5d4c4c3c1f59)

An example of one output from the GFS model. (Source: weather.gov)

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—a federal agency of the Department of Health and Human Services—that is responsible for food safety, has reduced inspections. Because domestic meat and poultry are at the highest risk of contamination, their inspections continue, but by staff who are going without pay, according to the agency’s commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb. Produce, dry foods, and other lower-risk consumables are being minimally-inspected, if at all.  Active research projects investigating food-borne illness that receive federal funding are at a standstill.  Is your stomach doing flips yet? (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/09/health/shutdown-fda-food-inspections.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FFood%20and%20Drug%20Administration&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=2&pgtype=collection)

An FDA field inspector examines imported gingko nuts–a process that is likely not happening during the shutdown. (Source: FDA.gov)

The National Parks Service (NPS) recently made headlines with the post-shutdown acts of vandalism in the iconic Joshua Tree National Park. What you might not know is that the shutdown has also stopped a 40-year study that monitors how streams are recovering from acid rain. Scientists are barred from entering the park and conducting sampling efforts in remote streams of Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. (http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/01/us-government-shutdown-starts-take-bite-out-science)

A map of the sampling sites that have been monitored since the 1980s for the Shenandoah Watershed Study and Virginia Trout Stream Sensitivity Study that cannot be accessed because of the shutdown. (Source: swas.evsc.virginia.edu)

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), better known as the “flying telescope” has halted operations, which will require over a week to bring back online upon funding restoration. SOFIA usually soars into the stratosphere as a tool to study the solar system and collect data that ground-based telescopes cannot. (http://theconversation.com/science-gets-shut-down-right-along-with-the-federal-government-109690)

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) flies over the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains while the telescope gathers information. (Source: NASA/ Jim Ross).

It is important to remember that science happens outside of laboratories and field sites; it happens at meetings and conferences where collaborations with other great minds brainstorm and discover the best solutions to challenging questions. The shutdown has stopped most federal travel. The annual American Meteorological Society Meeting and American Astronomical Society meeting were two of the scientific conferences in the USA that attract federal employees and took place during the shutdown. Conferences like these are crucial opportunities with lasting impacts on science. Think of all the impressive science that could have sparked at those meetings. Instead, many sessions were cancelled, and most major agencies had zero representation (https://spacenews.com/ams-2019-overview/). Topics like lidar data applications—which are used in geospatial research, such as what the GEMM Laboratory uses in some its projects, could not be discussed. The cascade effects of the shutdown prove that science is interconnected and without advancement, everyone’s research suffers.

It should be noted, that early-career scientists are thought to be the most negatively impacted by this shutdown because of financial instability and job security—as well as casting a dark cloud on their futures in science: largely unknown if they can support themselves, their families, and their research. (https://eos.org/articles/federal-government-shutdown-stings-scientists-and-science). Graduate students, young professors, and new professionals are all in feeling the pressure. Our lives are based on our research. When the funds that cover our basic research requirements and human needs do not come through as promised, we naturally become stressed.

An adult and a juvenile common bottlenose dolphin, forage along the San Diego coastline in November 2018. (Source: Alexa Kownacki)

So, yes, funding—or the lack thereof—is hurting many of us. Federally-funded individuals are selling possessions to pay for rent, research projects are at a standstill, and people are at greater health and safety risks. But, also, science, with the hope for bettering the world and answering questions and using higher thinking, is going backwards. Every day without progress puts us two days behind. At first glance, you may not think that my research on bottlenose dolphins is imperative to you or that the implications of the shutdown on this project are important. But, consider this: my study aims to quantify contaminants in common bottlenose dolphins that either live in nearshore or offshore waters. Furthermore, I study the short-term and long-term impacts of contaminants and other health markers on dolphin hormone levels. The nearshore common bottlenose dolphin stocks inhabit the highly-populated coastlines that many of us utilize for fishing and recreation. Dolphins are mammals, that respond to stress and environmental hazards, in similar ways to humans. So, those blubber hormone levels and contamination results, might be more connected to your health and livelihood than at first glance. The fact that I cannot download data from ERDDAP, reach my collaborators, or even access my data (that starts in the early 1980s), does impact you. Nearly everyone’s research is connected to each other’s at some level, and that, in turn has lasting impacts on all people—scientists or not. As the shutdown persists, I continue to question how to work through these research hurdles. If anything, it has been a learning experience that I hope will end soon for many reasons—one being: for science.

Why Feeling Stupid is Great: How stupidity fuels scientific progress and discovery

By Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

It all started with a paper. On Halloween, I sat at my desk, searching for papers that could answer my questions about bottlenose dolphin metabolism and realized I had forgotten to check my email earlier. In my inbox, there was a new message with an attachment from Dr. Leigh Torres to the GEMM Lab members, saying this was a “must-read” article. The suggested paper was Martin A. Schwartz’s 2008 essay, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science, highlighted universal themes across science. In a single, powerful page, Schwartz captured my feelings—and those of many scientists: the feeling of being stupid.

For the next few minutes, I stood at the printer and absorbed the article, while commenting out loud, “YES!”, “So true!”, and “This person can see into my soul”. Meanwhile, colleagues entered my office to see me, dressed in my Halloween costume—as “Amazon’s Alexa”, talking aloud to myself. Coincidently, I was feeling pretty stupid at that moment after just returning from a weekly meeting, where everyone asked me questions that I clearly did not have the answers to (all because of my costume). This paper seemed too relevant; the timing was uncanny. In the past few weeks, I have been writing my PhD research proposal —a requirement for our department— and my goodness, have I felt stupid. The proposal outlines my dissertation objectives, puts my work into context, and provides background research on common bottlenose dolphin health. There is so much to know that I don’t know!

Alexa dressed as “Amazon Alexa” on Halloween at her office in San Diego, CA.

When I read Schwartz’s 2008 paper, there were a few takeaway messages that stood out:

  1. People take different paths. One path is not necessarily right nor wrong. Simply, different. I compared that to how I split my time between OSU and San Diego, CA. Spending half of the year away from my lab and my department is incredibly challenging; I constantly feel behind and I miss the support that physically being with other students provides. However, I recognize the opportunities I have in San Diego where I work directly with collaborators who teach and challenge me in new ways that bring new skills and perspective.

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    (Image source: St. Albert’s Place)
  2. Feeling stupid is not bad. It can be a good feeling—or at least we should treat it as being a positive thing. It shows we have more to learn. It means that we have not reached our maximum potential for learning (who ever does?). While writing my proposal I realized just how little I know about ecotoxicology, chemistry, and statistics. I re-read papers that are critical to understanding my own research, like “Nontargeted biomonitoring of halogenated organic compounds in two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from the Southern California bight” (2014) by Shaul et al. and “Bottlenose dolphins as indicators of persistent organic pollutants in the western north Atlantic ocean and northern gulf of Mexico” (2011) by Kucklick et al. These articles took me down what I thought were wormholes that ended up being important rivers of information. Because I recognized my knowledge gap, I can now articulate the purpose and methods of analysis for specific compounds that I will conduct using blubber samples of common bottlenose dolphins

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    Image source: memegenerator.net
  3. Drawing upon experts—albeit intimidating—is beneficial for scientific consulting as well as for our mental health; no one person knows everything. That statement can bring us together because when people work together, everyone benefits. I am also reminded that we are our own harshest critics; sometimes our colleagues are the best champions of our own successes. It is also why historical articles are foundational. In the hunt for the newest technology and the latest and greatest in research, it is important to acknowledge the basis for discoveries. My data begins in 1981, when the first of many researchers began surveying the California coastline for common bottlenose dolphins. Geographic information systems (GIS) were different back then. The data requires conversions and investigative work. I had to learn how the data were collected and how to interpret that information. Therefore, it should be no surprise that I cite literature from the 1970s, such as “Results of attempts to tag Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, (Tursiops truncatus)” by Irvine and Wells. Although published in 1972, the questions the authors tried to answer are very similar to what I am looking at now: how are site fidelity and home ranges impacted by natural and anthropogenic processes. While Irvine and Wells used large bolt tags to identify individuals, my project utilizes much less invasive techniques (photo-identification and blubber biopsies) to track animals, their health, and their exposures to contaminants.

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    (Image source: imgflip.com)
  4. Struggling is part of the solution. Science is about discovery and without the feeling of stupidity, discovery would not be possible. Feeling stupid is the first step in the discovery process: the spark that fuels wanting to explore the unknown. Feeling stupid can lead to the feeling of accomplishment when we find answers to those very questions that made us feel stupid. Part of being a student and a scientist is identifying those weaknesses and not letting them stop me. Pausing, reflecting, course correcting, and researching are all productive in the end, but stopping is not. Coursework is the easy part of a PhD. The hard part is constantly diving deeper into the great unknown that is research. The great unknown is simultaneously alluring and frightening. Still, it must be faced head on. Schwartz describes “productive stupidity [as] being ignorant by choice.” I picture this as essentially blindly walking into the future with confidence. Although a bit of an oxymoron, it resonates the importance of perseverance and conviction in the midst of uncertainty.

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    (Image source: Redbubble)

Now I think back to my childhood when stupid was one of the forbidden “s-words” and I question whether society had it all wrong. Maybe we should teach children to acknowledge ignorance and pursue the unknown. Stupid is a feeling, not a character flaw. Stupidity is important in science and in life. Fascination and emotional desires to discover new things are healthy. Next time you feel stupid, try running with it, because more often than not, you will learn something.

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Alexa teaching about marine mammals to students ages 2-6 and learning from educators about new ways to engage young students. San Diego, CA in 2016. (Photo source: Lori Lowder)