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:


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Ritual is everywhere in the natural world. From braving flight over expansive, stormy seas, to the tenuous, exhausting work of rearing chicks, to squabbling for social rank on the wintering grounds, birds tread and hop and fly recognizable annual patterns.

And so do field biology graduate students.

Our most obvious ritual is the field season. Our study subjects follow an annual pattern and so must we: the ornithologists out May through August, give-or-take; my labmates the high-elevation chipmunk researchers waiting impatiently in June for the snow on Tioga Pass to melt; those studying South American fauna gone in our winter for the Southern Hemisphere summer. Only the tropical biologists are unpredictable.

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