December 13, 2019
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Shutdown jeopardizing science and technology statewide

NEWBURGH, Maine — Research biologist Christine Lipsky spent Thursday morning in the garden at her Newburgh home, unlike most Thursdays when she heads to the Orono office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Furloughed since Tuesday from her federally funded job, the research fisheries biologist has spent this week worrying about finances and wondering when the government shutdown will end.

The National Marine Fisheries Service — under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — closed its doors on Tuesday, giving 12 employees in Orono about four hours notice.

“We were notified on Tuesday morning, about 7:30, and we were given four hours to go into the office, prepare our ‘away’ email and voicemail [messages], tie up loose ends, take our garbage out and bring our plants home,” Lipsky said Thursday.

Lipsky’s paycheck is the family’s sole source of income, and she said she’s not sure yet what the financial impact will be.

“I think most people could handle a few days, but when it’s longer than that, you have to start considering other employment [or] unemployment,” she said. “There are many people who I know this is going to affect greatly, financially. People have payments … People I work with, people I’m friends with, where I know this is going to be financial hardship. There are just so many variables.”

Among the most troubling unknowns is how long the furloughs will last.

“I think the worst part is not knowing how long it’s going to be,” Lipsky said. “It could be four days, it could be four weeks. If I knew it was going to be four weeks, I think I would approach things differently.”

She and her husband would like to visit out-of-state family members who are hospitalized, but she knows she could get called back to work at any time and might need to return the next day.

Lipsky said her husband is scheduled to have surgery in two weeks, and they worry about how they’ll pay those bills.

Along with the personal hardship, Lipsky said fisheries research conducted by the NMFS will suffer. Ongoing field work, including estuary and marine surveys, will be interrupted, “and that is going to create a hole in our data set. The problem is that the more information we have, the better decisions we can make, and the stronger our conclusions are. It won’t totally negate everything, but it will have an impact.”

State government and contractors who do business with the state are in limbo as well, because permits for dredging and other projects that affect endangered species filter through both organizations.

“By the federal government [employees] not being able to do our job, state agencies aren’t able to do their job,” she said. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Without federal administrators to review grant applications, research and technology statewide is also suffering as the shutdown continues.

Jake Ward, vice president of Innovation and Economic Development at the University of Maine, said Thursday that while federal grants already issued and underway have not been affected, the federal government is not accepting new grant applications or finalizing any recently awarded contracts.

One grant proposal by the university’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center, to modify the scope of work for a wind tunnel wave tank, was scheduled to be reviewed by the U.S. Economic Development Administration in the next two weeks, according to Ward. A significant delay in approving the grant could affect when construction could begin — and might delay it to spring, Ward said.

“It certainly is a challenge to try to interact with your federal partners during this stage as far as reporting and other aspects,” he said. “They’re all basically not there.”

Many federal websites, including for the Small Business Administration, Department of Agriculture and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have been shut down as well.

Biomedical research at The Jackson Laboratory, Maine Medical Center and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute has not yet been significantly affected, officials said Thursday, but MMCRI director Don St. Germain said there will be both scientific and financial consequences.

Communication between MMCRI — which receives $10 million to $13 million in federal funding each year — and the federal government “has effectively ceased,” St. Germain said in a statement. The review process for new grant funding has been put on hold, and he said the backlog of reviews once the shutdown ends “will not only significantly delay our scientific progress, but also result in lost revenues.”

Funding for The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor will also be affected should the shutdown continue, according to executive vice president and COO Charles E. Hewett.

“The Jackson Lab brings in over $200 million annually for Maine’s economy — most of which comes either directly or indirectly from federal funds,” Hewett said in an email. “We are already experiencing funding challenges in the face of past years’ budget reductions and this year’s federal budget sequester. We expect these challenges to increase significantly if the federal government shutdown is not quickly and effectively turned around.”

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