The US federal government shutdown postponed the start of US Antarctic Program research projects this month. These delays have had a permanent impact on the careers of junior scientists, says marine biologist Gretchen Hofmann in a Comment piece published online in Nature. The effective two-week closure of the US Antarctic research station, because of the resulting lapse in government funds, may have irreparably damaged the season’s research.
Even with the shutdown now over, many polar science projects — from seal tagging to ocean-acidification monitoring — are jeopardized because they rely on access to sites that can be reached only on sea ice. Delaying work into October means that research time is reduced before the ice begins to melt and becomes unsafe for travel. Uncertainty over when and whether research can resume means that students and early-career researchers could still miss a whole season of field work, threatening doctorates and fellowships. Hofmann’s own student might no longer visit Antarctica this year; her postdoc is waiting in New Zealand, hoping to return to salvage what data she can. Because of the delay, her stipend from a US National Science Foundation fellowship will run out before her project is complete.
Long-term data sets on how the Antarctic is responding to climate change stand to suffer serious damage. Gaps in records of lakes and soils will be impossible to refill, and key changes will be missed. Crucial contact with seal and penguin communities will be lost, jeopardizing some projects that have run for more than three decades, and trained generations of scientists.