Should we build a border wall or fund research that saves millions of lives?

The U.S. government entered a partial shutdown shortly before Christmas, in large part due to a lack of resolution about President TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE’s $5.7 billion demand for a border wall. Lost in the conversation is how the closure of governmental agencies affects the scientific infrastructure of our country — and the health and safety of our citizens.

Public agencies play critical roles in forecasting the weather, announcing emergencies, monitoring earthquakes, protecting the food supply, testing drugs for safety, and ensuring clean air and water. Some of these agencies are down to skeleton crews due to the shutdown. Those employees who are working are doing so without receiving a paycheck; others are furloughed indefinitely.


As for safety, it is difficult to assess how the closures affect the public. For example, the website for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which monitors weather conditions and issues emergency notices, calls attention to the closure but provides no useful information beyond that. Perhaps those employees who maintain NOAA’s website have been furloughed.

The end of the impasse does not appear to be imminent; the President said he’d keep the government closed months or even years if he doesn’t get his way. Hundreds of thousands of employees are not being paid and are in a state of uncertainty. Beyond its dire effects on individuals who are unable to pay rent or bills, a long-term shutdown could be catastrophic to scientific progress.

Science does not happen on a 9-to-5 schedule; chemical reactions do not stop at 5 pm, and research projects depend upon continuity of collecting and analyzing data. We will forever have missing data points in studies that have been going on for years or decades, for each day of the shutdown.

Beyond governmental employees and the science carried out at NOAA, NASA, the EPA, and the National Science Foundation, the shutdown also affects scientists at public and private institutions around the country, both academic and non-academic, who are funded by public grants.

Scientific research is a multi-year process. It begins with the submission of a proposal by an individual or team to a board of expert reviewers, who evaluate the project for its significance, innovation, feasibility, and the credentials of the personnel. If a grant is awarded, the monies are used to cover costs of items such as equipment, lab supplies, chemicals, and computers and software to analyze the data.

The budget also pays the salary of personnel such as the team leader and highly specialized research staff. At many universities, research grants also pay undergraduate students who work in our labs, helping them to pay their tuition. At the same time, we provide our students with advanced skills that enable them to pursue a variety of careers or to apply to professional or graduate schools.

A prolonged shutdown threatens the continuity of many disciplines of science. For some agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), the review of new grant applications will be delayed, preventing young investigators from receiving a much-needed grant award to launch their careers in discovery science.

More senior investigators who are applying to continue a promising research project may instead be forced to prioritize difficult decisions about maintaining or even terminating employment of their personnel if the shutdown is protracted. Many of these individuals are irreplaceable, as they are highly trained over the course of years in a particular technique and are essential to the success of the project.

It is illustrative to put the $5.7 billion proposed cost of the border wall in the context of the NSF. The NSF supports research in areas such as biological sciences, computer science, engineering, geosciences, and astronomy. In 2018, the appropriation for the NSF was $7.8 billion, and nearly 12,000 grants were funded out of a highly competitive pool of applications.

This is an extraordinarily worthwhile investment of taxpayer dollars. Beyond improving our lives, providing jobs for thousands of Americans, and training the next generation of scientific leaders, research and discovery in the US are major engines of economic growth.

By contrast, there is no economic value to a border wall.

Andrea C. Gore, PhD, is professor and vacek chair of pharmacology at The University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices fellow of The OpEd Project.