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Shutdown Stories : Campus research hindered, future of academic collaboration on the line

Dominick Ciruzzi, who does research work in the UW-Madison Hydroecology Lab, is one of many people affected by the government shutdown nationwide.

Image By: Sydney Widell

As the semester begins and the federal government enters its 33rd day of a record-long partial shutdown, The Daily Cardinal is bringing you stories about what the shutdown looks like on campus and around the community. Certain government agencies have been closed since Dec. 22 and will only reopen once Congress and President Trump can reach a compromise over a $5 billion border wall. 

Before the government shutdown started, Dominick Ciruzzi, a PhD student in the hydroecology lab, had never considered how a lapse in federal funding might personally affect him.

However, over the last 33 days, he and his colleagues have been unable to apply for federal grants or contact their collaborators in federal scientific research agencies, which could have long-term consequences on his research. 

Ciruzzi’s research focuses on the way forests interact with groundwater during times of drought in Wisconsin's temperate forests. Like many UW-Madison PhD students, Ciruzzi’s work is partially funded by federal agencies, and he and his advisor are collaborating with researchers from organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Forest Service. 

Those federal scientists and administrators have been unable to do their work for the last 33 days while President Trump and Congress battle over a $5 billion border wall. For these federal researchers, missing proposal deadlines or not being able to go in to work could be detrimental to years of research, future studies and perhaps even their careers. 

As stories of the shutdown echo across the nation, Ciruzzi is beginning to feel uncertain about the future of his own research as well. 

“I’m fortunate to be in my position, but collectively my and others’ experiences are feelings of frustration, anxiety and helplessness,” Ciruzzi said. “I just don’t know when it’ll stop; I hope it stops soon.” 

The negative consequences that the shutdown is having on federal scientists and other federal workers — like TSA, Coast Guard and IRS employees — may outweigh the need for the shutdown, according to assistant professor in UW-Madison’s Management and Human Resources Department, Jirs Meuris.

“There is some level of irony, whether or not you agree with [funding a border wall], to have a shutdown over national security and then to expect workers who you depend on for your national security to work for an extended period of time without a paycheck,” Meuris said. 

Ciruzzi’s salary hasn’t been affected by the shutdown, and he is grateful he has not experienced the same hardships facing certain full-time federal workers. 

Still, agency closures have limited his ability to make progress in his PhD research, and even if the shutdown ends in the near future, Ciruzzi worries about its long-term impacts on relationships between academic researchers and federal scientists. 

“This will definitely substantially impact current and future collaborations with federal scientists, which right now are at a standstill,” Ciruzzi said. “I’m still getting paid ... but I don’t know for how long that will last; I don’t know if that’ll change.”

Over the past month, his lab’s federal data requests have not been processed, and emails to federal collaborators remain unanswered. When the government does reopen, Ciruzzi imagines backlog will continue to extend these delays. 

Last week, Ciruzzi and other UW-Madison researchers were supposed to meet with federal collaborators to discuss project results, funding and contract status. That meeting was cancelled due to the shutdown and has not been rescheduled.

And for researchers across disciplines, the shutdown comes during a critical time during the grant cycle. By this time last year, the National Science Foundation alone had awarded more than $150 million to early-career engineering students like Ciruzzi. 

Now, Ciruzzi said that students like him may be less likely to pursue federal research positions. 

“I personally was thinking about post graduate opportunities as a federal scientist, but I don’t really see those sorts of jobs as dependable if there are precedents for month-long government shutdowns,” Ciruzzi said. “The academic job market is stressful enough, so it’s adding to my anxiety about applying to jobs.” 

For Ciruzzi, these doubts were captured in an article he read recently in Nature.

“Back-pay won’t replenish the loss of human capital,” the article said. “Talent that leaves or stays away from government jobs will weaken US science for decades.” 

Ciruzzi believes it’s important for people to read the stories of people affected by the shutdown, which for him has been an eye-opening experience and has helped him keep his own situation in perspective. Also, advocating for policies that will protect workers in case of future shutdowns is important, according to Meuris. 

“Right now there’s so much attention on why the shutdown is going on, but there is a need for advocacy for what to do in the future and what to do about the problems we’re creating right now,” Meuris said. “We’re creating a problem that affects us all. This doesn’t stop when the shutdown’s over.”

*The shutdown has affected students, faculty and community members who are employed by the federal government. For those groups — or anyone experiencing financial insecurity — there are resources available on campus like The Open Seat, UHS mental health services and free lunch, which can help. 

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