One of the things I enjoy most about my job is sharing the research and scholarly successes of our faculty – a new drug to cure blindness, the discovery of gravitational waves, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Unfortunately, the biggest science story of 2019 so far is about the partial shutdown of the federal government. We are nearly three weeks into the new year and many of the key agencies that fund our research in fundamental science sit dark and vacant due to political issues completely unrelated to scientific research.
The vital flow of new and continuing funding and technical support from NSF, NASA, USDA, NIST and other agencies remains cut off. At a time when our international economic competitors are expanding their scientific research capabilities – China just landed the first probe on the far side of the moon – the vital financial and technical partners of U.S. research universities have been placed in a pause mode.
Proposals for new, cutting-edge projects sit unreviewed; contracts for approved projects sit unexecuted. Our international competitors are closing the knowledge gap unchallenged while technical and operational questions and queries to agency experts sit unread, unanswered and unnoticed.
Here at UF, one top researcher has a project to measure plants’ response to zero gravity that is scheduled to go into space, but with much of NASA shuttered he has little or no guidance as to whether the launch will happen. That same researcher has another research proposal to NASA that was chosen for funding but waiting to be issued. Another leader of a large program had a major technical review scheduled this month with NOAA officials. With the agencies closed, all that each can do is sit and wait.
Imagine competing in a marathon and having to disengage midrace for reasons that have nothing to do with your health or performance, watching while your competitors erase your lead or move further ahead. Imagine a farmer in the midst of a drought whose irrigation source gets cut off in the middle of the growing season, relegated to just watch and wait, hoping that this vital resource gets turned back on before things start to turn brown.
In research and innovation, time to success is often the difference between leading the world or being just another also-ran. Each day of the shutdown eats away at our competitiveness as institutions and as a nation.
Researchers at the University of Florida, across our state and nation anxiously wait for the impasse to be resolved, knowing that we will need to make up for lost time and opportunities. Soon I hope to be writing about fantastic research discoveries and not disengaged research agencies.