Shutdowns and outages: when infrastructure fails science

Last night, my university’s campus suffered a power outage, possibly due to the theft of copper grounding cables. Everyone—well, everyone not trapped in an elevator—was ordered to evacuate campus, which turned out to be a good call, because a backup generator then exploded, spitting flames two stories high. (No one was seriously injured.)

My scientist colleagues and I, while worrying about the trapped elevator people and the explosion, had one more thing to sweat over: our samples. If the freezers in our building go down, they can take years’ worth of research samples with them. One of my labmates had just returned from the field the previous day, and all of her summer of work was potentially thawing out that night.



Today, the country has a government outage. The government shutdown is already having widespread effects, and these will only worsen if it continues. I am lucky in my experience of the shutdown compared to most people: I am not losing the food stamps I depend on or the wages I have earned, for example. But the effects are still shocking. This morning I received this email, from the government office that issues banding permits and bands to people like me who band birds to study them:


The gist is, almost all functions of the lab are suspended. This includes processing banding permits, so if your permit expires before the shutdown is resolved, “you should stop all banding activities immediately.” This means no new bird studies.

This is what the National Science Foundation’s website looks like:


That’s not great. Did you know I’ve been preparing a big important grant proposal for the NSF that should be due Oct. 10th? The grant proposal preparation website is FastLane; it’s gone. Anyone else preparing any kind of grant application is in the same boat. NSF can’t even tell us what will happen once the government resumes because NSF is shut down; “NSF will issue guidance” is the only reassurance it can give.

Of course this isn’t a surprise: this is what government shutdown means. But just because it’s predictable doesn’t mean it’s not damaging for science.

Remember the campus power outage I was talking about? Fortunately, after much nail-biting and anxious texting, it became clear that some of the scientists and staff who were still on campus when the outage occurred had made sure that any samples not in a freezer on back-up power were moved to freezers that were. In the end, almost no damage was done. I lost a few PCR reactions that were in thermocyclers at the time of the outage; my labmate’s samples were all safe. Enormous thanks go out to the people who saved the day for UC Berkeley biologists.

We didn’t cause our power outage, but we dealt with it. Now it’s time for the government to deal with the crisis that it did cause.

12 thoughts on “Shutdowns and outages: when infrastructure fails science

    • I missed that! You got me curious and I just checked, though, and it’s working now. As far as I know BART is run by local government, not the federal government. (Although it may be out soon anyway due to a union strike…)

      Thanks. I’m still working on the grant, but it’s strange now to not know when it might be due.

  1. Best of luck to you–

    As a child who grew up in the East Bay–I can recall going for many walks through the campus. It is a very beautiful campus..

    When it rains it pours :(

  2. It is so surreal. Such a staggering thing to just let happen. I hope it gets sorted soon enough for you.
    Just a mention from a cancer doctor in Britain’s National Health Service, socialised medicine is pretty good and means we can deliver evidence based comprehensive cancer care to everyone based on clinical need free at the point of need. My short stature son gets very expensive growth hormone for the years he needs it without charge. I am amazed that opinion on this should be sufficiently polarised in the States to shut down the government..

    • It is ridiculous. Especially since in this case it isn’t even about legitimately arguing over the ACA – it already passed! It’s a law! The Supreme Court upheld it! The way to argue with it now is to win the next election, not…. this.
      Someone once told me that the test of a solid government was what the losing side does. If they continue to try to win using the system, it’s working; if they try to hold a coup or otherwise break the system, you’re in trouble. Well….

      • That’s an interesting test of solid government that makes sense. I’ve been explaining politics to my kids. In Parliament there are lines in front of government and opposition benches drawn two sword lengths apart, a legacy of less stable times. Still, many years ago, my great uncle crossed his line to thump a government minister. There is a ceremonial mace on a table between the sides. Twenty years ago, a minister was so angered he took it up and whirled it round threatening the opposition, earning himself the name Tarzan. Nowadays, we are apparently civilised.
        I hope your political vandals sort themselves out.

  3. I called by to say I hope you are back in business from tomorrow. I saw your previous comment. its tough enough being a scientist but to lose your experiments like that must be very hard.

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