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Boulder-area Science Community Wearies of Federal Funding Stalemate

January 9, 2019
National Snow and Ice Data Center Director Mark Serreze looks at data related to sea ice coverage on his computer on Tuesday at his office in Boulder. Patience was starting to wear thin for the hundreds of researchers across Boulder County whose work and data collection is threatened by the budget impasse as the shutdown reached it 17th day.

As the federal government shutdown slogged through its 17th day on Tuesday, patience was starting to wear thin for the hundreds of researchers across Boulder County whose work and data collection is threatened by the budget impasse.

Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, said most scientists he knows look on the situation with “dismay and disgust.”

Speaking only for himself and not as a representative of his research facility, he said, “I see it as petty bickering. And there’s no reason why we can’t come to a compromise on this. Meanwhile, we’re putting our scientific enterprise in limbo and that is not helping anyone.”

The NSIDC, which is housed within the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, includes about 95 researchers and staff, including students. Serreze said work there is largely unimpeded by the shutdown — for now.

He said, some data sets are not available but work-arounds exist so it’s not a “death sentence.”

Most of the snow and ice center’s money comes from NASA and Boulder’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and finances are not yet a problem.

“We are prefunded for the next several months through the end of May,” Serreze said. “Assuming that things get resolved reasonably well, we’re okay for now.

“If things linger, then yeah, were in trouble.”

Impacts ‘significant and growing’

The effects of the shutdown are being closely monitored by the Boulder-based Co-Labs, a consortium including Colorado federal research laboratories, research universities and more.

In its 2017 report , compiled by CU’s Leeds School of Business, it stated that federally funded research facilities in Boulder and the rest of the state contributed about $2.6 billion to Colorado’s economy and supported more than 17,600 jobs in fiscal year 2015. The report showed Boulder County federal lab workers alone contributed $1.1 billion of that total — more than any other Colorado county — and supported 7,627 jobs.

Co-Labs director Dan Powers is drafting a letter this week to Colorado’s U.S. senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.

A draft of the letter highlights several examples of the local impact. One is the Boulder-based Unavco, a university-governed consortium responsible for operating and maintaining equipment for measuring ground movement — meaning it monitors for tectonic activity regarding volcanoes and earthquakes throughout North America.

Supported on a bi-weekly funding draw from the National Science Foundation, it is funded only through Jan. 18.

“We are already impacted by all of the uncertainty because we cannot plan or carry out future operations,” Linda Rowan, external affairs director for Unavco, said in an email.

“In a worst-case scenario, we may have to reduce or discontinue some or all operations. The negative impacts are significant and growing.”

Speaking of the broad landscape of local research activity and the shutdown’s impact, Powers said, “It’s hard to get many specifics, simply because it’s difficult to get people who can answer inquiries beyond boilerplate replies. It’s unfortunate.

He noted that among those touched by the shutdown are small business people and vendors trying to reach federal employees.

“As a science policy person, I’m personally surprised at how more starkly emotional I feel, speaking with the scientists who truly feel dismissed, ignored and overlooked,” Powers added. “One of the ways to think of this is, how would you like to be deemed nonessential?”

Powers’ letter to the senators will also highlight Boulder laboratories, such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where only a couple of dozen “essential employees” remain at work.

Non-federal employees impacted include people such as Broomfield resident Brian Meyer. He is an associate scientist working in geomagnetic field research at CIRES.

Meyer’s normal workplace is the National Centers for Environmental Information, housed at the NOAA complex. Because of the shutdown, his workplace in recent weeks has been his home, a coffee shop or space he and his partners reserve as needed at CU.

“We’re in the middle of rolling out an updated magnetic field model, which is used to navigate all over the world,” Meyer said. “Our plan was to release this next Tuesday. But with the shutdown lasting longer than any of us expected, we’re going to have to push that release date back by at least two weeks. ”

Meyer spoke of the shutdown as a blow to local researchers’ professional pride.

“We all work for the government and in our respective positions because we really care about what we’re doing, we want to provide the best product and services not only to the American people, but to the global population,” Meyer said.

Referring to the politicians in the nation’s capital, he said, “We feel like their inability to organize themselves reflects on our reputation as leaders in scientific quality and reliability.

“It’s a tough situation to be in, to advocate that we’re the best, when we can’t be as reliable as we should.”

Charlie Brennan: 303-473-1327, brennanc@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/chasbrennan

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