Government Shutdown Puts Damper On America's Major Astronomy Conference

The SOFIA telescope, pictured, was supposed to be flown in for the conference. That won’t happen, due to the government shutdown. (Photo: NASA / Jim Ross)

As the U.S. government shutdown drags on, scientists are beginning to see the effects of the closure firsthand.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) estimated that 300 to 450 people, or 10 to 15 per cent of registrants, couldn’t attend its hallmark astronomy conference in Seattle this week, though that number could be a low estimate. Scientists have reported standing in last-minute for talks meant to be given by furloughed colleagues and noted the cancelation of important NASA-led sessions.

“There’s a sense of sadness about not having so many of our key colleagues here to talk about things,” John O’Meara, chief scientist at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii who is currently at the conference, told Gizmodo. “All of us are scrambling to give talks for them, which lowers the quality of the event.”

The government has been partially shut down since December 22, as President Trump has refused to sign any appropriations bill without money for a border wall. Non-essential employees at agencies whose funding has lapsed have been furloughed. That means that NASA employees, for example, cannot attend to their professional duties, including participating in the AAS conference.

Gizmodo heard stories of non-NASA scientists filling in to give presentations on behalf of multiple absent speakers; canceled field trips to NASA experiments like the SOFIA telescope, a retrofitted Boeing 747 that functions as an airborne observatory; and a general cloud over the conference.

The meeting would have been the first chance for the team behind the TESS exoplanet-hunting mission to advertise its newest results to the broader scientific community, but many of its scientists are furloughed.

O’Meara was supposed to cover two of his NASA colleagues’ talks about the LUVOIR telescope concept. He was able to hand one of the sessions off to another collaborator, but said he felt weird covering for the project’s lead engineer, NASA’s Matt Bolcar.

“I’m not the lead engineer of LUVOIR,” said O’Meara. “It’s a bit strange to have me giving his talk, but we gotta get them out there.”

Sources noted that the AAS and astronomers have stepped up to ensure that the conference runs smoothly and that the shuffling remains beneath the surface. The AAS made efforts to stream its plenary sessions, and lifted a policy prohibiting co-authors from presenting research so that co-authors could stand in for potentially furloughed first authors.

It let registrants create online posters and will find ways to hold some sessions virtually at a later date. That includes the NASA town hall, one of the conference’s more well-attended talks, which was canceled.

“On the surface, it’s going to be ok,” Jessie Christiansen, NASA Exoplanet Archive deputy science lead at the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute and California Institute of Technology, told Gizmodo. “It’s just a shame. The timing is really disappointing for folks who were working hard leading up to this.” Conferences are an important time for astronomers to meet face to face, plan, and share results, something that can’t happen in full this year.

AAS’s executive officer Kevin Marvel issued a statement on behalf of the organisation:

It is a true disappointment that hard working scientists seeking to explore and understand the universe on behalf of the American public and to share their results with their colleagues and really move our knowledge forward are basically being prevented from doing so by political impasse. In the same week that the Chinese government lands a rover on Mars and the US sends a probe to the furthest object ever visited by humanity, scores of scientists at all career levels are being prevented from attending our meeting.

On a practical level, our community depends on everyone showing up and sharing and supporting one another in our shared research. We now have to juggle schedules, figure out how to cover sessions with missing speakers and even missing session chairs, how to fill in gaps in our poster hall and what to do with exhibits that cannot be set up and will remain boxed in storage during our meeting.

This shutdown is disruptive to us as an organisation, disruptive to the science of astronomy and will have unknown impacts on the progress of discovery in astronomy. Let’s all hope the issues that led to the shutdown are resolved quickly.

The shutdown has affected science beyond astronomy as well. Just last week, Earther reported that the shutdown was preventing scientists from attending the world’s biggest weather conference.

Researchers are professionally impacted by not being able to attend conferences, and personally impacted by not receiving their paychecks. Then there are the expenses of researchers who spent time and money to prepare for and attend the conference, efforts that have now gone to waste.

Meanwhile, it seems little progress has been made toward bringing the partial shutdown to an end.

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