People expect to get something of value when they spend their money. But when taxpayers’ income has been spent on research underway at a shuttered agency like EPA, it’s like pouring money down a drain, according to retired agency scientists.
The EPA conducts hundreds of different air pollution, water quality, ecological, chemical toxicity, and other studies that had to be put on hold when the agency shut down.
It could take up to six months to get some of those studies restarted once the EPA reopens, said Dan Costa, who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development in January 2018.
Stopping and starting a scientific study “is not like jumping into a car and turning the key,” he said. “It’s like someone pulled the car apart and you need to put it back together before you drive,” he said.
Less than six percent of the agency’s research office has been allowed to work during the furlough, with 87 staff members at their posts out of a total workforce of 1,484. That’s fewer people to handle the EPA’s ongoing work, slowing the pace of research.
The lost time equates to lost money as well, Costa said. Once the EPA starts up again, it could easily take three to six months before the EPA’s studies are back to where they were before the shutdown began, he said.
Contractors and Critters
The EPA says the rats, mice, zebrafish, and other laboratory animals exposed to pollutants or chemicals in their facilities are being cared for during the partial government closure that began Dec. 22.
“No animals have been killed prematurely because we couldn’t proceed with a study,” an EPA spokesman told Bloomberg Environment Jan. 15. In the absence of EPA research staff, contractors care for both experimental animals and cell cultures, which are used for toxicological research, he said.
Yet some laboratory animals slated for studies in which they would be exposed to contaminants and then analyzed for possible health effects may be killed and cells tossed if the shutdown would compromise a study’s results, said Costa and Jack Fowle, a geneticist who left the EPA in 2012 after 33 years conducting and overseeing a range of research on pesticides and pollutants.
“In many cases the easiest and cleanest thing to do is just to terminate a study, cut all losses, and redo it,” said Costa, based on his 23-year career at the agency.
When the EPA’s researchers return, they have to figure out whether and how to proceed with a study, he said.
For example, some ecological or air pollution studies can only occur at certain times of the year, said Costa, who formerly directed EPA’s air, climate, and energy research program.
If the timing of the research window is lost, the agency’s regulators stand to receive less information to decide, for example, whether a pollutant causes harm and, if so, at what concentrations, he said.
Scientific projects have a certain momentum that gets lost during a shutdown, and then staff return to a “whole raft of tasks,” said Bob Kavlock, a senior agency scientist who retired in 2017.
Highly specialized and sought-after contractors—such as those who worked with the EPA’s National Center for Computational Toxicology—can easily find other paying clients and may not be available when the government restarts, said Kavlock, who directed that center.
Impacts on Students’ Careers
Other important losses include discouraged undergraduates and post-doctoral researchers whose career-building work at the agency is halted, leaving them struggling to pay rent and school loans, said Kevin Crofton, a toxicologist who retired from the EPA in 2018 after more than 38 years.
“These young people are not getting paid, and likely don’t have financial reserves,” he said.
Interrupting their research could delay or prevent such students from publishing scientific papers or presenting the results of their experiments at scientific conferences, Costa said.
That might not sound important, but publications and presentations are essential to building scientific credentials and catching future employers’ eyes, he said.
“It’s hampering their education,” said an EPA scientist, who asked not to be identified.
It also dissuades young scientists from being willing to work for the government, the scientist added.
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(Correcting Jack Fowle's length of service at EPA in ninth paragraph.)
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