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The Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia – the world’s largest steerable radio telescope – was manned with a skeleton support staff and performed no scientific functions during last month’s 16-day government shutdown.

Shutdown’s Indiana impact

D.C. absurdities leave researcher starved for data

The recent government shutdown affected people all over the country. A lot of the stories concentrated on the Washington, D.C., area or on the national parks. However, scientific work in every state, including Indiana, was also delayed.

The utter pointlessness of these delays was frustrating. However, I do think they make clear who in Congress seems concerned about the general welfare and who is overly concerned about one specific government policy.

In my research at Manchester University, I frequently interact with astronomers at federally run telescopes. My current project requires using the Green Bank Telescope, a radio telescope in rural West Virginia. We are measuring how the hottest stars move gas around and potentially trigger new stars to form.

Of course, this work is not as important as food stamps, the Centers for Disease Control or many other critical services that were shuttered. Nonetheless, science across the country, including at small institutions like Manchester, depends on the connections to the wider community that the federal government enables.

As my collaborator in Idaho and I were working to calibrate our data, we received an email from the observatory about the government shutdown:

“I am sorry to inform you that (the National Radio Astronomy Observatory) must temporarily suspend its North American operations because of the US Federal Government shutdown ... NRAO Site Directors have identified a skeleton staff to maintain the security, safety, and integrity of NRAO facilities, telescopes, and systems during the shutdown; but no science observing will occur.”

When I read this, I couldn’t help but laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. My collaborator and I had been exchanging emails with support scientists at the observatory to help us calibrate the observations.

One of the scientists was a friend from graduate school. And now this person, a world’s expert in using one of the largest radio telescopes, was unable to simply talk to me about how to interpret my observations. A tremendous amount of effort has gone into building and running this telescope so we can better understand our place in the universe.

After having our observational proposal approved, we spent a spring break helping run the telescope in West Virginia. We also spent many late nights and early mornings running the telescope remotely to ensure the observations were complete in time for summer. Students have spent the summer working to calibrate the data. We also submitted several proposals for follow-up observations this fall in hopes of lining up a project for next summer. Unfortunately, even with the government reopened, no one yet knows when those proposals will be evaluated and when the observations would be completed.

If there was any purpose, any reason for this shutdown, I suspect it was to cause this kind of frustration.

Some representatives have said that their top priority was changing health care policy; that the government shutdown was a necessary frustration to force that change. Well, I understand what they mean. They mean their preferences are more important than the many, many things that people such as I work on.

This realization makes me bitter. I am bitter that our representatives, including Marlin Stutzman, R-3rd, no longer are concerned with making all our lives better. I am bitter that they have decided that their health care focus is more important than all the government services we all depend on. I am bitter that the Democrats had to choose how to respond to Republicans’ near-willingness to take us over the debt-ceiling ledge.

I am hopeful, however, that both Democratic and Republican voters can now recognize who was responsible and concerned for the general welfare during this disagreement.

Christer Watson is an associate professor of physics at Manchester University. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.