Hundreds of scientists have pulled out of attending the ‘Super Bowl of Astronomy’ due to the government shutdown which has affected 95 per cent of NASA’s staff.
Nearly 3,200 astronomers, astrophysicists and other scientists were scheduled to attend the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which kicked off yesterday and runs through to Thursday at the Washington State Convention Center.
The cancellations mean NASA’s new telescope-fitted jumbo jet – the world’s largest airborne observatory – won’t be unveiled.
The state of the art Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a modified Boeing 747, was due to be showcased for the first time at the conference.
It’s thought around 300 to 450 of the scientists won’t make it due to the government shutdown which has affected more than 380,000 federal workers — including 95 per cent of NASA’s employees.
The shutdown’s impact on science stretches well beyond the empty chairs at this week’s conferences, said Keith Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society.
He said it means some of the nation’s smartest scientific minds are sitting at home, not doing science, for weeks, with no clear end in sight.
Seitter said: ‘That’s difficult to recover from. We’ll be seeing ripple effects from this for a long time.’
Attendees of the events describe them as crucial opportunities for scientists from the government, the private sector and academia to exchange research and ideas.
The gatherings are like three-legged stools, and this week one of the legs is missing, said Kevin Petty, the chief science officer for the private climate company, Vaisala.
Amanda O’Connor, a satellite imaging expert who is attending a weather conference, said: ‘That’s the value of these conferences, it’s the people I run into in the hallway or the coffee line, start up a conversation and realize there’s a connection between what they’re doing and what I’m doing.’
‘It’s those serendipitous encounters that are lost and really important.’
Even Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s new administrator, and the leaders of the National Weather Service are no longer able to attend the weather conference, and the organizers scrambled to replace their presentations.
Until late last week, Fienberg said the astronomical organization had hoped the politicians in Washington could work out a deal to resolve the impasse over President Donald Trump’s demands for $5.6 billion to build a wall on the southern border.
But on Thursday, employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service, were told to cancel their conference plans.
Scientists and engineers from NASA and the Smithsonian were also told they couldn’t attend.
Conference organizers have scrambled to shift speakers, relax the rules to allow non-governmental employees to present the work of their federal colleagues and negotiate with hotels to allow government employee to cancel reservations made long ago.
‘In the same week that the Chinese government lands a rover (on the far side of the moon) and the U.S. sends a probe to the furthest object ever visited by humanity,’ said Kevin Marvel, the astronomy organization’s executive officer, ‘scores of scientists at all career levels are being prevented from attending our meeting.’
One concrete casualty could be the government’s ability to recruit and retain the next generation of scientists, said Seitter, with the American Meteorological Society.
Take E.L. Meszaros, a doctoral student at Brown University, who had been scheduled to present her research on human-drone communication techniques at the San Diego technology conference.
But her work was funded by NASA, as was her trip to the conference. So she’s stuck at home in Rhode Island. She always imagined she’d work as a public servant.
But now she has scientist friends who work for the government who haven’t been paid in weeks and are interviewing at other places.
‘If you can’t guarantee that you’re going to be able to pay your employees,’ she said, ‘then it does make you second guess whether that’s where you want to work.’